“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.
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 Where? is 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.
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’sData 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’sOther 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.
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 HrairSarkissian’s, whose In Betweenpresents 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.”
Doctoral alumni from the Department of Economics at the New School for Social Research count as some of the most influential in the discipline, ranking highly on recent lists of leading economists published by Politico and Richtopia. They are also among the most productive researchers at national liberal arts colleges, according to a recent study that appeared in November’s issue of the International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education.
Alumnae Stephanie Kelton (PhD’01, Economics) and Heather Boushey (PhD’98, Economics) were both listed by Politico as two of 2016’s top “doers and visionaries” transforming American politics, specifically in the areas of Economics and Inequality. Boushey, who is described as part of a trio of policy advisers that played a prominent role in the Clinton Presidential Campaign, was characterized by The Atlantic as the former candidate’s “economic inequality whisperer.” In the wake of the election, Boushey continues to serve as Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, where her research focuses on inequality and public policy. Her most recent book, published last year by Harvard University Press, is Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict. In it, she argues that for decades the American Wife played the role of, “a behind-the-scenes, stay-at-home fixer of what economists call market failures. When women left the home—out of desire and necessity—the old system fell apart. Families and the larger economy have yet to recover.” According to Boushey, policy solutions must entail the creation of opportunities for American workers to better balance their home life and work obligations.
Sharon Block and Heather Boushey
Kelton serves as Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a department with close ties to The New School for Social Research. Politico describes her as a leader in “Modern Monetary Theory,” which stands as “a major break, even with many Keynesian economists on the left who trumpeted fiscal stimulus after the financial crisis.” Kelton was an economic adviser to Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run, and was also ranked the 26th most influential economist in the world on Richtopia’s end-of-year list (up two spots from 28th in 2015).
The prominence of recent New School doctoral alumni isn’t limited to the States. Joining Kelton on Richtopia’s list was Jim Stanford (PhD’95, Economics), who recently relocated to Sydney, where he is Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute. Previously, Stanford was the Harold Innis Professor of Economics at McMaster University and has been a longtime commentator on economics in the press. In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Stanford analyzed the changing rules of globalization in the auto industry during the Trump Administration.
Like Stanford, Mariana Mazzucato (PhD’99, Economics) was recently named as the Director of an important economics research center, the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL in London. She was also counted as one of the most-cited industrial policy sources for the UK Labour Party during debate in Parliament. For the sake of comparison when considering economists cited as authoritative in Parliamentary debate, Mazzucato ranks fifth—tied with Karl Marx and falling behind only Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Stiglitz, and Milton Friedman. Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State, which was reissued in the US by Public Affairs in 2015, “debunks the myth of a lumbering, bureaucratic state versus a dynamic, innovative private sector.”
Boushey, Kelton, Mazzucato, and Stanford exemplify the New School for Social Research’s emphasis on conducting critical research that can drive policy discussions. This research excellence extends into the classroom. In “Engaged in Teaching, and Scholarship Too,” three economists examined the “research productivity of economists affiliated with the top 100 national liberal arts colleges,” as measured by the output of publications. Both Matías Vernengo (PhD’99, Economics) of Bucknell and Rajiv Sethi (PhD’93, Economics) of Barnard College were in the top 20. Vernegno’s scholarship emphasizes the history of ideas in the development of economic theory, while Sethi currently works on the economics of inequality, crime, and communication.
“It is exciting to see our alumni producing such diverse research while at the same time playing critical roles influencing policy and teaching the next generation of students,” said Mark Setterfield, Chair of the Department of Economics. He was listed as the fourth most productive researcher at the top 100 liberal arts colleges during his time at Trinity College. Setterfield added, “Our department plays such a special role in the discipline, both domestically and internationally. It’s evident from the accomplishments of our alumni that this role is widely recognized, both within the economics profession and beyond.”
The Economics Department welcomes “friends and family” to a celebration at the University Center that will coincide with the annual Meetings of the Eastern Economics Association on February 24. Details are forthcoming, and all with affiliations to The New School for Social Research Department of Economics are invited to connect with faculty, alumni, and others for an informal gathering. For more information, please reach out.