Student Fellows Innovate at NSSR Centers and Institutes

How student research is informing new modes of interdisciplinary social thought

The New School was founded in 1919 as a place where scholars could advance progressive social thought and provide the public with accessible and relevant education. The school’s early thinkers came together across disciplines to explore major social issues of the day: migration and mobility, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

A century later, The New School for Social Research continues that important work through myriad classes, publications, public programs — and especially through interdisciplinary centers and institutes. In these special spaces, faculty and students meet across departments and divisions to research many of the same major social issues. Centers and institutes help fuel policy debates, promote public discussion, and welcome visiting scholars into the New School community.

Many of NSSR’s centers and institutes have robust student fellowship programs that provide Master’s and PhD students with financial support and mentorship as they conduct major research projects. Research Matters spoke to current fellows at three centers, looking at student work across issues of economic empowerment, migration, and ethnographic design

GIDEST: The Intersection of Social Theory, Art, and Design

Photo credit: GIDEST fellow Otto von Busch

The Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST) is The New School’s home for transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory, art, and design. Funded by a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, GIDEST “draws on The New School’s tradition of politically-engaged, historically-grounded, and theoretically-innovative social research” and connects scholars across the university, especially in their bi-weekly seminar series on art and theory.

Hugh Raffles, Founding Director of GIDEST, is a Professor of Anthropology whose work is a sustained ethnographic inquiry into relations between humans, animals, and things. As a GIDEST Senior Fellow himself, he has been completing The Book of Unconformities  (Penguin Random House, August 2020), in which he uses anthropology, history, and geology to explore the stories of stones.

“The work of the student fellows is central to the institute,” Raffles says. “They bring their own expertise and interests into the group, and help create a supportive and dynamic environment in which we can all develop our ideas. As GIDEST fellows, they gain structure and the experience of participating as peers in high-level conversations with accomplished scholars and practitioners,” and receive mentoring on their research projects.

The current cohort of GIDEST fellows include faculty and students working in Politics, Psychology, Photography, Media Studies, Historical Studies, and Sociology. Amanda Arena-Miller is a PhD candidate in Psychology and GIDEST fellow whose work explores the relationship between dance and interoceptive awareness — a person’s ability to sense internal bodily states. 

Amanda Arena-Miller, Psychology PhD candidate

“My dissertation is a collaboration between the NSSR Psychology department and the Dance Department at Eugene Lang College,” Arena-Miller says. “It was a brainchild of my advisor Miriam Steele (Professor of Psychology) and Professor Neil Greenberg, who is a choreographer at Lang. They were both interested in how dance might impact your awareness of your internal signals and how that relates to the psychology of body representation. I had been working on body image research and experience as a dancer, so I took over that research.”

Arena-Miller has been coordinating this study for over four years, and it has since branched off into additional research on how art practice can impact body awareness. At GIDEST, she is compiling quantitative data on biofeedback and self-reporting; holding interviews; and conducting qualitative research on dance, using grounded theory and ethnographic work to explore interoception. 

Although their respective work can appear largely unique — past topics have included ethnographic studies of cellphone designs in China, the research of multiple spatial “under-commons” of Black and Brown community resistance in Mississippi, and the role of television in the resurgence of the historical avant-garde in the late 1960s — GIDEST fellows are able to support and elevate each other’s research with a sense of community.

“We are all interested in how knowledge is created and perpetuated within discourses and academia,” Arena-Miller shares. “Largely speaking, we’re all interested in the production and also having a critical eye on knowledge.” And in addition to the welcome financial support, “we have a space where we present our work and give each other feedback. It’s really enriching.”

SCEPA: Connecting Policy to Economics

Photo credit: Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) works within NSSR’s economics department as a research center focusing on policies that raise living standards and foster economic security. Collaborating with economists, SCEPA provides research analysis and policy recommendations in the areas of climate change, public finance, and retirement.

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, directs SCEPA and helps guide the work of its student fellows. “Educating tomorrow’s economic leaders is fundamental to SCEPA’s mission,” Ghilarducci says. “Our team of fellows and research associates learn how to use their academic and economic skills to impact policies that can better people’s lives. In turn, SCEPA benefits from the diversity of experiences, academic and professional, that our fellows bring to the team’s daily work.” 

A noted expert and media authority on retirement policy, Ghilarducci has launched SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab, which is dedicated primarily to conducting research on the U.S. retirement system and vulnerable older workers. ReLab engages with both the media and policymakers to share their data and seek major structural reform. 

Owen Davis, a former financial reporter, and a first-year Economics PhD student, works as a research assistant at SCEPA’s ReLab. His work helps to illuminate vulnerabilities that have fueled the growing retirement crisis and led millions of American workers to downward mobility in retirement

“We use government and survey data sets to explore how retirement policies and labor market trends affect older workers’ retirement prospects,” Davis explains. “For example, last semester I used a nationally representative data set to show that the financial fragility of older workers has been rising since the 1990s, and remains elevated since the Great Recession. In short, the typical older worker has more debt relative to their assets than they did before the last recession.”

Owen Davis, Economics PhD student

Student fellows contribute their own interests and areas of expertise to  SCEPA’s work and also gain hands-on experience in the economics field.

“In many instances, we end up working with our former students as professionals, such as former SCEPA research assistants Kate Bahn, who is now Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Kyle Moore, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Joint Economic Committee,” Ghilarducci says. 

The center’s work is often shaped by movements and financial trends in real time. 

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have devoted virtually all our attention to predicting how the crisis will affect older workers and determining what policies would be most important to ensuring income and retirement security, as well as basic safety, for older Americans,” Davis says. “We’re hard at work seeing how all of these phenomena will play out for the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Hopefully we can get our message out to policymakers.” 

Zolberg Institute: A New Understanding of Human Movement 

Zolberg Institute fellows in Amman, Jordan, summer 2018

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility examines human movement in the age of globalization. Building on The New School’s tradition of migration studies, the institute combines art, activism, and research to create a forum on issues of human movement. 

Catherine McGahan is the Associate Director at the Zolberg Institute and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is the first institute to focus specifically on mobility,” McGahan says. “We pull in different disciplines to create programming that is accessible to the general public, outside of academia. We are working on research, we are working on policy, we are working on academia, we are creating a more robust view of migration and mobility, not just for New York City or the country, but also for the world.” 

The Zolberg Institute is also supporting the next generation of migration scholars and immigration advocates. Graduate student fellows come from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds; NSSR students from Anthropology, Politics, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and Psychology collaborate with students from other programs at The New School, including International Affairs, Public and Urban Policy, and Transdisciplinary Design. They work on a host of projects, including writing content for the Mobilities Seminar series at Public Seminar, NSSR’s publishing initiative, working in specialized faculty research clusters, and producing the Zolberg Institute’s immigration policy podcast, Tempest Tossed.

Special Zolberg-IRC fellowships allow students to work directly on global issues, piloting interventions and policy recommendations that then get rolled out to a global community at large. 

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program and a current Zolberg fellow. Cusik is an editor at Public Seminar and works on Tempest Tossed.

“I would say that the Zolberg Institute is where I feel the greatest sense of community in the entire university,” Cusick says. “All of my colleagues share a commitment to issues that matter to me, and we have the opportunity to work together on these issues in various practical ways — writing and editing articles, researching and planning the podcast episodes, hearing and discussing scholarly work in progress, and attending and supporting public events.”

With their robust public events calendar currently on pause, Zolberg has gone digital, launching an online series of discussions with scholars and activists on migration-related issues and COVID-19.

 Mat Cusick, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student

The upcoming season of Tempest Tossed, produced by the student fellows, is a deep-dive on the Trump administration’s immigration tactics, their impact, and their potential lasting legacy.

I have responsibility for researching and editing the script for an episode on the Trump administration’s ‘virtual wall’ — another way of describing the systematic dismantling of the asylum system,” Cusick shares. “The fellowship has provided me with my first opportunity to be involved directly in a podcast, at all levels of production, from proposing subjects, speakers, and titles, to recording interviews and editing scripts, to strategizing about marketing and promotion.”

As an editor at Public Seminar, Cusick has written his own pieces on migration as well as commissioned and edited the work of major scholars in the field for the Mobilities Seminar, on topics such as asylum policy, offshore detention of refugees, climate change, forced migration, and sanctuary movements.

“Zolberg fellows are engaged in a wide range of important and exciting work around what I consider to be one of the most fundamental political issues of our time, transcending borders,” Cusick says.

Changing the Economics Conversation

Economist Kate Bahn on the evolving world of feminist economics, labor organizing, and the new narratives of policy change

Income inequality in the United States has been rapidly growing over the past 30 years. So, too, are conversations about inequality, and how the disparities caused by race and gender discrimination exacerbate those gaps. 

Kate Bahn (PhD Economics 2015) is helping shape those conversations, with the bigger goal of changing what we think about when we think about the economy. 

“High-quality, cutting-edge academic research is really important to moving the policy narrative,” Bahn says. “There’s a big demand for narrative change work right now. We see a lot of people talking about big structural economic policy change in a way that it hasn’t been talked about before.”

Bahn is the Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an institution that aims to build strong bridges between academics and policymakers “to ensure that research on equitable growth and inequality is relevant, accessible, and informative to the policymaking process,” especially on issues around labor standards, gender inequality, taxation to business competition, wages, and innovation.

Translating complex concepts for a variety of audiences is a valuable tool for effecting policy and inspiring both real understanding of and sustainable change around economics. Bahn does this important work behind the scenes and publicly, publishing articles on key topics in economics in academic journals, Equitable Growth’s website, and major popular publications such as The Guardian, The Nation, and Salon

The Monopsony Framework

Bahn focuses on inequality across gender, race, and ethnicity in the labor market, care work, and monopsony, a condition in which one buyer has substantial control over the market for a particular good or service offered by many sellers. She can easily trace her current interests to her past work for labor unions and topics she studied at The New School for Social Research.

“I first got introduced to the concept of monopsony in my first labor economics class at the graduate level taught by Teresa Ghilarducci [Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and head of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis]. She had us read the book Monopsony in Motion by Alan Manning,” Bahn remembers. “It just struck me as an intuitive way to ground our understanding of the labor market in a framework that can accommodate for power.” She went on to write her dissertation on monopsony, using it as a lens to compare labor and feminist economics, and continues to develop thinking on the topic today; this past October, she explained monopsony while testifying at a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing.

Guided by NSSR Dean and Professor of Economics Will Milberg, Bahn also completed an independent study surveying NSSR’s feminist economics literature and took one of her qualifying exams in feminist economics. She cites Dean Milberg’s support of her intellectual pursuits as crucial to her academic and professional development.

After receiving her doctorate, Bahn worked as an economist at the Center for American Progress, where she looked at how gender can inform what is valued in the economy, and the possibilities of creatively recognizing the value of gender in occupations or women workers. Since joining Equitable Growth in 2018, Bahn has shifted away from specific policy proposals and toward more narrative and explanatory work.

NSSR Alumni Collaboration

Equitable Growth also offers her the chance to work with one of the most influential voices on economic policy in the United States today: fellow NSSR alum Heather Boushey (PhD Economics 1998), who co-founded Equitable Growth in 2013 and serves as President and CEO.

“We have a similar perspective in our educational background,” Bahn says of Boushey and of NSSR, well-known for its heterodox economics department. “We understand each other. We can speak the same language. When we have conversations at work about narrative change and consensus building, we ask questions like, ‘How do you change the economics profession in order to change economic policy?’ We both fly into talking about philosophy of science or political economy or recognizing that there are multiple schools of thought in economics.” Bahn and Boushey recently co-authored the article “Women’s Work-Life Economics” for LERA Perspectives on Work, a magazine published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Heather Boushey returned to NSSR in 2016 to deliver her talk,
“The Political Economy of Time and Work-Life Conflict”

Who Gets to Be an Economist?

Bahn also challenges traditional ideas surrounding economics and gender in another narrative space: on Twitter, as @LipstickEcon. “I do think the question of what it’s like to be a woman in economics in this moment is important, but it’s a little bit complicated,” she says. In addition to the harassment that women in economics face, gender and concepts of gender influence what is considered good economics research and who is largely considered to be worthwhile subjects. 

“I’m a particularly feminine-presenting woman in economics, I don’t fit the typical mold of an economist. I still demand to be taken seriously,” she says. “The work I do [as Executive Vice President and Secretary of] the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) — which is also very related to the broad range of schools of thought I was exposed to in economics at The New School — is about realizing that there is more than one way to do economics, and that there are some ingrained biases in what I would call mainstream economics towards a particular viewpoint.” 

Tackling major structural change within the economy and within the economics field is tough work. But as Bahn understands it, these are the conversations that matter most — and are the ones most worth having. 

Photo: BriAnne Wills, Girls and Their Cats

Revival Magazine Examines the State of the Left

Revival on 15th Street, a cheap bar with a patio, became a regular spot for the NSSR community to meet for a post-class drink near campus. One particular group of graduate students routinely went to Revival together every Friday night. They would talk about The New School, the chaos of graduate life, and the intricacies of leftist ideologies and movements happening in, around, and far from the university. These discussions soon became the inspiration to start their own magazine.

“The idea to establish Revival Magazine originated from the realization that The New School, and in particular NSSR, lacks accessible and student-led spaces where we can exchange ideas and arguments that are not academic in nature,” says founding co-editor and Economics MA student Ruben Brockbreder. “We wanted to create Revival to document these conversations, which, while most passionately delivered in the dim light of the bar and animated by Friday night spirits, would often dissipate within daily routine and university madness.” 

“All That’s Left”

The first issue of Revival launched in May of 2019, entitled “All That’s Left.”  “The quite gloomy title for Issue I describes our attempt to collect or survey the condition of leftist movements and parties around the world,” Brockbreder says.

The issue featured three sections: commentaries on the state of the left in seven different countries; research briefs spotlighting the work of MA and PhD students in NSSR’s Three-Minute Thesis Challenge; and art and essays on themes of labor, alienation, and a sense of belonging in and near the left. Submissions came from across NSSR, representing how social science students are grappling with today’s most pressing issues.

Ye Liu, a Sociology PhD candidate, wrote a commentary on China:

Amy Osika, a Historical Studies MA student, explored the use of satire by the New Left and the U.S. counterculture for social and political critique in 1960s.

P.J. Gorre, Philosophy PhD candidate and Coordinator of Academic Affairs at NSSR, shared advice from his mother amid difficult times.

Kalpa Rajapaksha, an Economics PhD student, presented photographs from “beyond the horizons of capital in New York City.”

Making a Magazine

But as Brockbreder tells Research Matters, an idea is far from enough to make a magazine materialize from scratch. The original team of five editors found funding for Revival through NSSR’s MA Project Grant, which provides support for initiatives launched by MA students that focus on learning, research, and community-building. 

“From the very beginning, we all agreed that we wanted to produce a physical rather digital product that we could ‘hold in our hands and pass around’. From getting submissions for essays and artwork, to editing and finally printing and binding, everything in setting up Revival, in fact, has been refreshingly physical,” Brockbreder says. They printed and bound the magazine by hand at Parsons Making Center, with a digital copy created as an archive. 

Isobel Chiang, a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student and Revival’s art director, has worked as a publishing fellow with the New Republic and as an assistant at both the Parsons School of Design and at a New York City design firm. She points to the Parson’s Graphic Design Lab and its technician, Joe Hirsch, as major resources for producing the physical magazine. She included her notes on design and layout in the arts section of Revival:

“Our goal when typesetting and laying out Revival was not to make a magazine that succumbs to stale associations of leftism (the color red, images of people protesting, stars, etc.),” she writes. “Our goal, instead, was to somehow carry over the spirit of the left into a print product.” The magazine uses only three colors on uncoated paper.

Publication design is an essential part of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) curriculum. All CPCJ MA students take Design and the Future of Publishing, a hands-on studio course investigating typography, book and pamphlet design, digital printing, content on the web, and ideation. They also examine contemporary issues that cross design and publishing through readings and analysis of contemporary books, magazines, and periodicals across both printed and digital platforms. Every spring, Parsons School of Design undergraduates join CPCJ students in multidisciplinary teams that work to create conceptual publishing projects — a truly New School-only experience.

Looking Left of The New School

Buoyed by student response and a second MA Project Grant, Revival’s editors are working on its second issue, “For our second issue, we now want to shift the focus from the global to the local to focus on the movements and debates organized by New School students and workers,” Brockbreder says. 

Submissions for the second issue should touch broadly on the relationship between leftist ideas and ‘liberal institutions,’ such as The New School, timely in the year of its centennial. Some topics suggested in the call for submissions include how the New School’s health insurance policy is affecting students, the meaning and symbolism of sanctuary schools, and labor organizing on campus and at other academic institutions. 

As the first issue told us, “We want to continue thinking beyond academia; coming from within but looking beyond. This is an attempt at reviving that tradition.”


If you would like to write for Revival, please email revivalmag@newschool.edu with a brief pitch of your idea; the essay does not have to be written at this point in time. If you have a complete essay, please submit that as an attachment with a brief summary of the essay in the body of your email. The submission deadline is December 15, 2019.

The Gothicness of Black America: Liberal Studies Alumna Leila Taylor on Her First Book

A library after closing hours can be a mysterious place — making it a great location to talk with Leila Taylor about her first book, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019). From a bench in the children’s section of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Taylor, a 2018 Liberal Studies MA alumna and BPL’s creative director, explores the history of Afrogoth, the visceral horror and inherent gothicness of Black America, and her own history in the Goth scene.

Taylor’s personal relationship with Goth culture is critical to the development of the book. “I didn’t really intend to write about myself as much as I did,” she says. “I was intending it to be much more of a historical and cultural text, but I found that it was hard to talk about the subject matter without talking about myself. When I realized that so much of my own personal story was directly related to these larger historical issues and larger cultural issues, all of these genres mushed together made sense.” 

In Darkly, Taylor writes, “I suppose I would fall into the Traditional goth category or (god forbid) Elder Goth.” Growing up as a self-proclaimed Goth kid in Detroit, Taylor threw herself into the music of the 80’s goth rock. She recalls buying Siouxsie and the Banshees albums and hanging a Joy Division poster on her bedroom wall. As an adult, she reclaimed this inner angsty teen by going to events hosted by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy, which produces events on ‘art and medicine, death and culture’.

Decolonizing Goth

Through these experiences, Taylor felt the whiteness in Goth spaces. She was often the only Black person at the events and concerts, and she started to ask herself why. “When I started this project, I was really looking at what it was like being a Black person in the Goth scene and to be the only person in the room and all that entails,” she said. “I made an effort to go looking for people who shared this experience.”

Taylor found a good starting point in the Afropunk scene. “That was my gateway into all this,” she laughs. The documentary Afro-Punk (2003) examines Black people in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, and is also the name of a movement that has blossomed into journalism, fashion, and a music festival. 

Taylor looks at Afrogoth as a twist on Afropunk. “Afrogothic is a similar  Black-centric perspective of the gothic. Some people think of it as the subculture of people who dress in black and wearing too much eyeliner, but for me, it’s closer to a way of looking at a genre through an Afrocentric, decolonized lens.” 

What Taylor found is that the experiences of Black people in the scene didn’t have anything to do with them being Goth, but rather, the lived experience of being Black in America — applicable in any field in which people of color are not considered, marginalized, or taken for granted.

“I realized there really wasn’t any difference between Black Goths and everybody else. The only difference was that they were Black,” Taylor said. “It really stopped becoming about Goth as a subculture, but the gothicness of Blackness and how blackness itself is a gothic experience.” Darkly asks, “If the gothic narrative is metabolized fear, if the Goth aesthetic is romanticized melancholy, what does that look and sound like in Black America?” Taylor contrasts this question of the “aesthetic of horror” with the real visceral horror that defines the history of race in America for many. Part memoir, part historical context, and part cultural criticism, the book analyzes the ways Goth embodies race relations in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The skeletons in the closet are the persistence of white supremacy and the ghosts of slavery, and the haunted grounds are the ubiquity of Black death and its mourning. This ghastly undercurrent of fear and grief moves throughout Darkly, but there is still a joy in Taylor’s writing, a reclamation in processing this trauma. 

The Horror of Working, Writing, and Studying

While Darkly was published in 2019, the idea of the book has motivated Taylor for years, even before she started her Master’s in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had it in my head the entire time. I was writing short essays here and there of cultural theory stuff and not getting published and realizing that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

Taylor began to take note of faculty members who could help shape her writing and processes. “I was taking classes with the people that were writing the kind of things that I like to write and the kind of style that I like to write, so having those people as a sort of a regular weekly influence was helpful,” she says, citing Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media, and Eugene Thacker, Professor of Media Studies as influential mentors. 

In addition to studying part-time at NSSR, Taylor was working full-time at BPL. When asked when she found time to work on the book, she replied “Every moment! It was before work, sometimes during work, after work, and on the weekends,” she said. “It was a lot. It was really rough, but basically any free time was when I did it. The one thing, working for the library — it was incredibly supportive. Also if I ever needed a book source it’s right there.” Working as a designer also helped her develop her creative problem-solving skills and her research process. “Part of the creative process is trying to do something that no one else has done before, something unique that is expressive of yourself and communicating a larger idea. This all goes back to the idea of sending a message,” Taylor explains.

Research Matters asked Taylor if she had any advice for writers who are full-time students, like many Liberal Studies and Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism students, or have unrelated full-time jobs. “Give yourself a break,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t write a day, because you’ll go crazy. Don’t think about what you think other people want to read or what you think will get published or what you think is going to sell. You have to do what you want to do, as long as you can, and as much as you can.”

The Future of Afrogoth

Looking to the future of Afrogoth, Taylor says that the movement is happening right now and there’s only more to come. Taylor emphasizes that there is an abundance of work on the history of Black people of horror films. She recommends the Shudder documentary Horror Noire as particularly great viewing. “There’s a lot more scholarship about [Afrogoth] and work being done creatively in the mainstream giving it a bigger voice,” she says. Films like Tales from the Hood and the more recent works of director Jordan Peele are using horror to express the Black experience and the day-to-day terror Black people continue to experience. The success of Peel’s Get Out has amplified his messages to much wider audiences.  

“It’s not only Black people,” she says as she excitedly references newer horrors like HBO’s Los Espookys, featuring New School alum Julio Torres, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, called “the first Iranian vampire Western.” “Any kind of opportunity for different faces and different voices is good. I think it’s only going to get better.”

McKenzie Wark on Capital, Capitalism, and Expanding Our Language

Our data is everywhere. From Facebook likes to online personality quizzes, our internet clicks leave an ongoing record of our personalities, our preferences, and our habits.

This information is the new currency of the 21st century. Our very sociability has been commodified, and those who own and control our data form a new ruling class, argues McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media, in her latest book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? “If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold,” she says.

A follow-up to A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), Capital Is Dead draws on Wark’s past work, the work of contemporary theorists, and the writing of the Situationists to explore the information age. Wark poses the questions: What if this era cannot be defined by capitalism anymore — and what if it’s something worse? Research Matters sat down with Wark to discuss her latest book and the process behind developing her new theory. 

Wark’s main argument is this: The new ruling class uses our information against us to deter labor and social movements, thereby changing the way we must look at traditional leftist ideas around capital. 

The book opens with a quote from writer Kathy Acker, a friend and collaborator of Wark’s and the focus of both a class she teaches and an upcoming NSSR seminar she’ll lead: “Post-capitalists’ general strategy right now is to render language (all that which signifies) abstract therefore easily manipulable.” With capitalism is no longer an efficient descriptor for today’s chain of production, Wark explains that failure to innovate new language may be a major part of the problem. “It struck me that a phrase like neoliberal capitalism is just incredibly bad poetry,” she says. “You just shove a modifier on something that you then don’t think about the thing you’re modifying, the modifier has a modifier. That’s not a thought to me.” Additionally, a new form of class relation has arisen in response to this data commodification, one that cannot be contained by terms such as “capitalist” and “worker.”

Creating a New Vocabulary

Instead, Capital is Dead provides a new descriptive language to better navigate this flow and ownership of information and properly analyze a new world of data. Wark gives us the terms “vectoralist class,” those who own not only the flow of information, but the “legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce,” as well as “hacker class,” the vast majority who are producing new information. She urges us to see “a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value. ” While not exactly the same as labor, Wark notes from Marx’s writings that “there are always many subordinate classes….modes of production are multiple and overlapping.” As expected in a book about capital, discussions of class, production, commodities, and struggle wind their way through the text, but with considerations and redefinitions for how those forms are changing or are no longer applicable.

Wark also addresses science and the challenges of the current Anthropocene era, weaving through theorists from Joseph Neeham to Jean-Paul Sartre to make connections between natural and social history, and how the hacker class might look to the former for new models of organization.

Building on her wealth of celebrated prior research, articles for the intellectual commons Public Seminar, and other published writings, Wark says this latest thought experiment is ”summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time.” She also shares that writing practice was a major part of her research process to produce this thought experiment. 

“I’m a writer,” she says “Media studies is my discipline, but that was a bit accidental. So what I practice is writing and how we understand, in this case, Marx and the various people in the conceptual space of Marx as writers, and how did they invent or create new languages that cut across the assumptions of the times.”

Collaborating for Learning and for Survival

One of the more challenging parts in Wark’s theory is accepting how little is actually known about this new controlling vectoralist class. Rather than assuming they can be analyzed in the same way as capitalists, she makes the case for starting over with the critique strategies and looking for a way out.

Wark emphasizes that these questions raised in Capital is Dead can only be answered together, working across disciplines and fields. “Humanities and the social sciences really do need to think about what a collaborative production of knowledge looks like,” she says. “What are collaborative practices of knowledge that reach outside of disciplinary assumptions and cultural habits?”

These questions help guide the courses Wark creates and teaches at NSSR and at Eugene Lang College. Drawing largely on the work of other writers and theorists, she aims to share with her students knowledge and work practices that enable them to survive in this political economy,  “It’s about living,” she says of both studying and surviving in the current political economy of knowledge.

During the 2019-2020 year, Wark is teaching courses at NSSR and at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in which she does just that, with a particular focus on trans issues. In “Trans Theory as Gender Theory”, a Spring 2020 course in NSSR’s Department of Liberal Studies, Wark and her students will work together on constructing alternate pathways into the research on gender and sexuality. Much like in Capital Is Dead, Wark also hopes the class will develop new concepts for trans literature, art, and media that don’t fit neatly into existing theoretical categories.

Pushing those boundaries is essential to Wark’s work, but she’s not always met with positive response. The introduction to Capital is Dead offers a range of reactions from scholars and activists to her work ⁠— as well as Wark’s dry, hilarious responses. “They’re a lot of Marxists who think like cops and that’s just boring,” Wark laughs.

Living After Capitalism

So if this isn’t capitalism and we’re still not quite sure of what it is, is there a way out of it? Wark is wary of treading into false hope for the future. In A Hacker Manifesto, Wark saw a path to reclaim the commodification of information — a battle she now deems as lost. 

“A moment of defeat is useful to acknowledge and retreat and try to secure any basis at all of non-commodified social life,” she says. “There is a very narrow possibility of surviving this century.” Wark is critical of false optimism that accompanies some “allegedly leftist theory.” To her, an accurate assessment of the social and political climate is critical for any shred of hope in radically changing it. “It’s all a bit bleak,” she says. 

However, as Wark writes, “This was in the end a defeated movement, but that is no reason to pretend that it didn’t exist. Rather, there’s work to be done to narrate and analyze the struggles of that time and those that continue as relatively novel expressions of what kinds of worlds are possible in and against the forces of production of these times.”