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.

In Wagner-Pacifici’s account, we perceive events as breaks in what otherwise seems like the unremarkable continuity of everyday life, or what Wagner-Pacifici refers to as ground. “In order to better understand what makes a rupture feel so disorienting and disquieting, you have to understand how it is we navigate the everyday world that we consider the uneventful world.” Events become eventful when we perceive that they “emerge” from or “rupture” the ground we are used to navigating.

Wagner-Pacifici describes specific events, not just to examine individual ruptures and their respective effects on specific societies; rather, she mobilizes them as cases that help to articulate how the construction of events might be understood more generally. At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that events only exist in the forms of their representation. “Forms matter,” Wagner-Pacifici says, “In fact, they are the matter of events. [Events] don’t live anywhere else.” To put it differently, events exist in the ways that they are mediated: by news reports, paintings, novels and films, legal decisions, the creation of new categories of “enemy combatants,” social media feeds, and memorials.

What is an Event? makes a specific intervention when it comes to this last form: the case of memorials. Wagner-Pacifici argues that memorialization plays a central role in the creation of events. “A monument is about cauterizing the event,” she says. To erect a monument typically marks an effort to collectivize memory and suggest separateness from the event itself. But Wagner-Pacifici offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting “the memorial is as much a part of the event as anything that happened.” Memorials become, in her account, an essential form in the creation of an event. Viewed this way, the building of a 9/11 memorial or the decision to locate an Islamic Community Center near “Ground Zero” has as much to do with the event as the hijacking of planes and the destruction of buildings.

If events like the Great Recession seem trickier to define, Wagner-Pacifici points to the difficulty of pinpointing when events actually occur. “How do we know when we’ve reached that threshold?” she asks, “when it’s no longer just daily oscillations or some probabilistic series, but rather something that has taken form and launched itself as an event?” In her estimation, The Great Recession frustrates those trying to analyze it, partly because of its resistance to formalization, its failure to cohere, and the extent to which the forms and factors that caused it remain in place. “Millions of people lost their homes, their retirement savings,” Wagner-Pacifici grants, “but it was a non-event in a way […] Wall Street continues unabated, banks continue unabated, the accretion of finance in the hand of a few continues.” One interpretation of the Great Recession suggests that the elusiveness of substantive policy responses represents one outgrowth of the “abandonment of an attempt to concentrate that event into some kind of centralizing image.”

In this, Wagner-Pacifici drives home again the importance of understanding aesthetic depictions of events, and she regularly turns to the analysis of images to help build her structure for thinking through events. “It’s really important to do as adequate a job at analyzing images and symbols as it is to analyze discourse and textual materials,” she says. “That’s why, in trying to find various angles into events, I’m also trying to illuminate events through their pictorial apparitions.”

The integration of such humanistic readings into a sociological study marks one more way in which Wagner-Pacifici’s book opens up to diverse forms of interpretation. Running throughout the book is her assertion that our “blunt instrument of a vocabulary of cause and effects is not good enough, not sophisticated enough.” What is an Event? represents an attempt to build a more nuanced lexicon that helps us understand that no event is final, or should remain uncontested. With respect to the forms that comprise a single event, we may return to a sense of what Wagner-Pacifici calls “unremarkability” or “quiescence,” but any event “can always be resurrected.”

If an event is any one thing, then, it is always evolving.

New NSSR Award Recognizes Graduate Student Teaching

This past Spring term, the New School for Social Research created the Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award to recognize the teaching efforts of its graduate students.

Students and faculty nominated 35 students for the award. Seven award winners were chosen from the nominees. The winners were lauded for their ability to connect complex topics to students’ lived experiences, provoke interesting and respectful discussion, while creating a dynamic and inclusive learning environment.

The 2015 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award winners are:

Malgorzata Bakalarz, Sociology
Martin Fagin, Psychology
Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi, Politics
Krista Johansson, Philosophy
Abid Khan, Economics
Hannah Knafo, Psychology
Brandon (Biko) Koenig, Politics

The award will be given annually and the winners recognized at the Dean’s Welcome Reception on Thursday, September 24th.

Institute for Critical Social Inquiry Announces 2016 Faculty Lineup

(text from The New School’s Marketing and Communications, Sep. 1 2015):

ICSI copyright Paulo SaludThis summer, The New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry (ICSI), will launch its second year of Summer Seminars. Housed at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in New York City, the ICSI, founded and directed by Ann Stoler, offers advanced graduate students and faculty from around the world a weeklong Fellowship in which they work closely with eminent scholars who have shaped how we think today.

The Summer Seminars will run from June 12-18, 2016 and will be led by Jay M. Bernstein (New School for Social Research), who will convene the seminar Of Masters and Slaves: Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology; Judith Butler (University of California, Berkeley), who will convene the seminar Freud to Klein: Death Drive, Pleasure, Ethics; and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia), who will convene the seminar Why Marx Today?.

ICSIStudent_1688_PauloSaludCopyright_webBorn of The New School’s historic focus on exploring pressing contemporary issues, the ICSI is designed to cultivate a style of critical inquiry that applies conceptual care and innovation to real-world problems. ICSI provides a rare opportunity for young and seasoned scholars to re-immerse themselves in intensive graduate-level study with leading theorists in morning Master Classes and to workshop their dissertations and book projects in the afternoon.

“ICSI is founded on the premise that responding to current and emergent problems requires developing our collective capacities to formulate new and better questions, rather than relying on ready-made theories,” said Ann Laura Stoler, the founding director of the ICSI and Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. Stoler is the author of a range of books on colonialisms, imperial genealogies, sexuality and race, most recently Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, as well as Duress: Concept-Work for Our Times, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

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The application portal for the 2016 Summer Seminars opens Sept. 1, 2015 and closes Dec. 1, 2015. International scholars, especially those in the Global South, are encouraged to apply; scholarships and travel grants are available.

The 2015 inaugural cohort of fellows included PhD candidates, post-doctoral scholars, and junior and senior faculty from 17 countries who worked intensively in seminars led by Talal Asad (City University of New York), Simon Critchley (NSSR), and Patricia J. Williams (Columbia Law School).