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.

Media 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.

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.

“Far Away from Where?”: an NSSR PhD Student Curates an Exhibition on Memory, Loss, and Migration

The idea for Far Away from Where? – a timely exhibition featuring twelve artists that meditate on homelands, trauma, memory, and refuge – grew out of an anecdote. As told by the show’s curator and New School for Social Research sociology doctoral student Malgorzata Bakalarz, the story goes like this:

Two emigrants are discussing their plans to find a new home. The first tells the second that he will migrate to Uruguay, to which his surprised companion replies, “Oh, that’s far away!”

The first responds: “Far away from where?”

For Bakalarz,  who was a Doctoral Fellow at The New School’s Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought, the question is instructive for several reasons. She explains that in the case of some migrants, whose hometowns and homelands may be destroyed or drastically altered by conflict, the question suggests the impossibility of ever returning to the places one remembers. The politics, memories, and histories woven into the built environment are torn down, destroyed, rebuilt, and — to the extent possible — reinvented. In another sense, the question suggests that one can never quite escape the psychological and emotional imprint of one’s home. The emigrant asking “Far away where?” might be implying the impossibility of getting too far from the traditions, customs, and memories (traumatic and otherwise) of a homeland.

The diverse works in the exhibit — which include pieces by artists drawn from faculty and students at The New School — present these and other potential meanings, which emerge from reflections on the experience of leaving, returning to, and longing for one’s homeland. Far Away from Whereis also part of a more complex intervention called Wounded Places in a Volatile World that joins the exhibit with a symposium and intensive course that Bakalarz teaches in Warsaw during Spring Break, designed for graduate students at Parsons.

Tymek Borowski’s “Data Visualization”

The result is a multi-part program that brings together artists, designers, and researchers for dialogue about memory, migration, and trauma.

In the exhibition, Tymek Borowski’s Data Visualization superimposes a dark column of cloud on the skyline of present-day Warsaw. It represents 18 million cubic meters of rubble from the destruction of Warsaw during World War II. The mountain of debris looms over the contemporary city’s skyline like a monstrous shadow, a literalization of how traumatic memory can haunt the present. By comparison, Elżbieta Janicka and Wojtek Wilczyk’s Other City features photographs of ordinary-seeming Warsaw cityscapes. Their pictures take on richer, more complex meaning when put in relationship to historical descriptions of the scene. It’s only thanks to these descriptions that we learn that these are images of Warsaw’s destroyed Jewish Ghetto. This knowledge reveals the “other city” hiding outside of our immediate perception. Simona Prives’s intricate palimpsestic video Helter Skelter differently represents the way ordinary lives in cities build upon and erase one another, suggesting that even in the absence of an overtly traumatic event, the urban landscape bears marks of loss and change.

Malgorzata Bakalarz with Hrair Sarkissian’s work

As Bakalarz explains, her curatorial decisions are directly in line with her academic research, which is deeply informed by sensitivity to the dynamics of places and spaces.

Her dissertation analyzes the complexity of reactions to the reclamation of Jewish communal property in Poland. In this work, which she calls “microsociological,” Bakalarz studies three sites in small towns to provide nuance to the picture of reception and application of the new democratic order in Poland during the country’s transition to democracy. In this, she is attempting to shed light on the meaning of public spaces in the context of local identities.

Bakalarz added that the works in the exhibit, when taken together, suggest that true knowledge of a site’s history may always prove evasive, either because memories are always partial or because the truth of loss is too large to get one’s head around.

The latter perspective seems clear in the case of work Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian’s, whose In Between presents monumental and stirring photographs of the artist’s return trip to his homeland of Armenia. The natural features in his pictures dwarf evidence of human intervention in the landscape. They are enormous, snow-covered, and undoubtedly beautiful, but also melancholy. By comparison, Jayce Salloum’s video works This is Not Beirut and Occupied Territories  present stories of a “home encountering” after 29 years in exile. In a particularly moving moment, a man holds up a piece of rubble that he took from Lebanon — a single shard of memory.

“All of these wounds are bigger than us,” Bakalarz said. “And wounded places are always closer than we think. The best we can do is to try to understand them and figure out how to position ourselves with respect to them.”

Far Away from Where? is open through March 5 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue). An artist talk by Hrair Sarkissian (via Skype) and reception took place on March 2. The exhibition was made possible by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and ArteEast.