Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.

Nancy Fraser Is the Newest Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science, has been named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur — a knight of the Legion of Honor of France.

This highest reward for outstanding merit, founded by Napoleon in 1802, is given to French nationals and others who have served the country or helped further its values. In Nancy’s case, as noted in her official award letter: “You develop through your many papers a reflection on the major issues facing our contemporary societies that is as philosophic as it is political. Your original feminist thought aims to understand the inequalities of gender from a triple economic, cultural and political perspective. Through your work, you wish to help change society, and to imagine a new one…. France recognizes the breadth of your work, your commitment to promoting French language and thought as well as your cooperation with French and European universities.”

During her tenure at The New School for Social Research, Nancy has developed a longstanding relationship with the French academy. She has served as Blaise Pascal International Research Chair of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales from 2008-2010, and as the International Research Chair in Social Justice at the Collège d’études mondiales of the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme from 2011-2016.

The Legion of Honor is the latest award Nancy has received this year for her work. She was also awarded the Nessim Habif World Prize, conferred at the University of Geneva on October 12, and the Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship from the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be conferred there on April 11, 2019.

Nancy has published dozens of books and articles on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought. Her latest work is Capitalism: A Conversation in Political Theory, co-authored with Rahel Jaeggi, in which the two leading thinkers “show how, throughout its history, various regimes of capitalism have relied on a series of institutional separations between economy and polity, production and social reproduction, and human and non-human nature, periodically readjusting the boundaries between these domains in response to crises and upheavals.”

Join Nancy this summer at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry’s 2019 Summer Seminars, where she will be leading the Critique of Capitalism seminar.

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

NSSR Mourns the Loss of Professor Jeremy Safran

The entire New School community is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Jeremy Safran, New School for Social Research psychology professor, former Department of Psychology co-chair, and an internationally renowned psychotherapist. This heartfelt tribute by Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Jeffrey C. Goldfarb originally appeared in Public Seminar on May 8, 2018 and is reprinted here with permission.

This is a very sad day at The New School for Social Research and at Public Seminar. Jeremy Safran, a distinguished professor in our Psychology Department and a senior editor of Public Seminar, a dear colleague and friend to many of us, was murdered yesterday in his Brooklyn home. We are in shock, as we are trying to respond.

This morning, a community gathering was called by our dean, Will Milberg. Colleagues, administrators, and most movingly, Jeremy’s students visibly stricken with grief, tried to console each other.

An announcement was made by the co-chairs of the Psychology Department, Bill Hirst and Howard Steele (who also happens to be Jeremy’s first cousin):

“As most of you know, Jeremy Safran was brutally murdered yesterday. Jeremy’s contributions to the Department and to the field of Psychotherapy Research cannot be underestimated. He joined the New School faculty in 1993, shortly after the APA had placed the Clinical Psychology Program on probation. He quickly found himself Director of Clinical Studies and later Chair of the Department, and with characteristic energy and determination, worked not only to move the Clinical Psychology Program to full accreditation, but to make it the vibrant, respected program it is today. During this time period, he established a training facility at Beth Israel Medical Center, the low-cost New School Psychotherapy Research Program, and the Sándor Ferenczi Center. He was a brilliant mentor to many students and an inspired instructor.

Outside the New School, Jeremy’s intellectual curiosity and broadminded approach to all things psychological held him in good stead. He was an expert in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy before he joined forces with Les Greenberg to provide the theoretical foundations for Emotion-Focused Therapy. He was also a preeminent psychotherapy researcher, studying the processes underlying rupture and repair in therapeutic alliances. He wrote or edited eight books and a large number of articles and chapters. He also developed for the APA a series of training DVDs. In recognition of his brilliant contributions, the Society for Psychotherapy Research awarded him their Distinguished Research Career Award and Division 39 of the APA honored him with the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychotherapy Research. He also served as President of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Jeremy’s contributions did not end with his envelope-pushing research on psychotherapy or his knack for decisive institution building. He also wrote insightfully about Buddhism and psychoanalysis and on critical approaches to Psychology. In addition to his faculty position at the New School, he was also on the faculty of New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

We want to extend our condolences to Jeremy’s wife, Jenny, and his two children, Ayla and Ellie. We will miss him.”

Jeremy appeared on Public Seminar as a public intellectual. He was an active member of our team from the very beginning. He took part in and informed our deliberations, as we launched and developed our venture in innovative publishing. He realized in his posts our goals: drawing upon his expertise, he addressed the non-expert public (including me) about “enduring problems of the human condition, responding to the pressing issues of the day.” He wrote many pieces and solicited even more from colleagues from around the world, and students close to home. He wrote one of our most popular posts, on the rise, fall and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States, “Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?” I love the piece because it has been very popular and is also excellent. He critically reported on psychology’s involvement in America’s torture regime: “Psychology and Torture.” A few weeks ago he wrote “Authenticity American Style,” on “the meaning of authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics.” He combined sober professional judgment, with intellectual playfulness.

On a personal note: I knew Jeremy as a kind person, a gentle-man, also a bit forgetful, as am I. Although we were not intimate friends, we were close colleagues. I admired him for his commitments: mental health, personal wellbeing and the public good were not simply words for him. We worked together with mutual respect. I enjoyed him as a person. Last Thursday, we had our last monthly Senior Editors’ meeting for this academic year. He was late. I told my colleagues I thought this meant he wouldn’t be coming. When he arrived, I pointed this out to him. Since Public Seminar and The New School’s Publishing Initiative have moved up to their new digs, before each meeting, I received a note from Jeremy asking me to remind him where the meeting would be held. Last week, he came without asking.

An additional note from Ali Shames–Dawson, an important editor on our team:

“I am inclined just to add how much he brought dedicated students to Public Seminar — I am here because he insisted that we must speak immediately one day, my first ever Jeremy at-home phone call, and he excitedly told me of the opportunity to be an editorial fellow, back in 2015. Since then, he has solicited and supported a wealth of student writing and PS involvement, as was his way. His deep dedication to spreading his commitments, particularly to critical intellectual engagement beyond the boundaries of disciplinary psychology and in socially engaged scholarship, and involving students in meaningful projects is something I know everyone who reads this who knew him will appreciate and resonate with.”

Simon Critchley in Conversation: Talking about Thinking About Football (…or Soccer)

To mark the occasion of Simon Critchley’s newest book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (Penguin Random House), Research Matters sat down for an hour-long conversation with the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy about the “beautiful game.”

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Research Matters: I want to start by talking about time, or actually about temporality. One of the recurring themes in the book is the way soccer helps to explain the peculiar way our perception and affective experience of time are neither linear nor constant. Where are you coming from philosophically here, and how does soccer help punctuate and organize our experience of time?

Simon Critchley: Philosophers for the last century—[Henri] Bergson, and most importantly, [Martin] Heidegger—have been trying to talk about the experience of lived time; to advance the claim that lived time is not the same as clock time. Clock time is your sequence of now-points—not-yet, now, no-longer-now—as a linear, uniform continuum. Various philosophers have been arguing, rightly in my view, that that’s not how we live our fundamental experience of time. Time is something that is not linear. It’s not governed by the clock; it’s shaped by the environment, by the world that we’re inhabiting at that time.

In soccer, it’s a particularly compelling and obvious point. You have linear chronometric time, the 90 minutes of the game plus injury time, into two nearly divided 45-minute halves. So there is the objective measure of temporality. Every game lasts as long as the last game. But our experience of the time is very different. So you could do a kind of Einsteinian twin example and say, “Imagine there are twins watching the same game and they support opposing teams. The game is 1-0. One of the twins supports the team that’s winning, and the other twin supports the opposing team.” Their experience of time is fundamentally different. For one, the last minutes of the game—the injury time—are an agony of extended duration. For the other, time seems to accelerate, contract. So there you have an example of the way our experience of time is shaped by this game and how in passages of play [are] completely recognizable, but when you think about it strange things happen with time. That time can suddenly compress, that there can be a movement—a throw in, a flick-on, a movement between two or three players and then let’s say a shot or a goal—and that ten minute sequence of play can be experienced as a second. And they can be replayed! So time compresses and can have this largasso stretching effect.

This is what a lot of people who don’t get about football is that it’s fundamentally about time, but the time is not the stacatto stop-start of most American sports, whether it’s the stop-start of basketball or the usually stop-and-then-occasionally-start of baseball, which of course make perfect sense commercially. American sports were shaped for advertising, whereas football is this extended field of more or less movement. The question is what is happening at any one point. Something is always happening, but people aren’t necessarily scoring goals. So this idea that football is boring because it’s not 57-52 at the end of the game fundamentally misses the point that it’s about watching this extended flowing movement. That’s the joy of the game, it’s watching. There can be fantastic games where nobody scores.

RM: There’s something to be said about the way that is integral to the game, right? The management of time, especially in the midfield. People like [Javier] Mascherano are good because they can control the pace of the game, and move that pace in the direction that benefits the team. He can extend moments or quicken things. There’s something about the way the manipulation of time is part of the strategy.

SC: Yeah. Very clearly in the Argentinian game, the Uruguayan game, and the Italian game. Those three football cultures, which are incredibly important, are about time management and the idea that what looks to other eyes as a cynical, defensive football—that’s the game. I talk in the book about the joys of defensive football. The classical Argentinian teams I grew up watching were brilliant defensive teams that played in the Italian style. You set up to stop the other team scoring, and then maybe get a goal yourself. And that can be ruthless, but there’s a real beauty in that.

I think also about the phenomenon of cheating. I think there’s something really interesting. The dream of any sport is that there will be constitutional clarity about what’s going on and video evidence or whatever it might be. In many sports that is the case. In soccer, it’s not the case, strange things happen every game and that’s not because football players are bigger cheats than other players but because there’s something about the relationship between law and the bending of law that is essential to the game. The objective of the game is to win. And if winning means bending the law, then you bend the law. And the art of a great player—a great defensive player—is knowing how far they can bend that law. That’s a subtle and often invisible art to the amateur, or to the person who just wants to see goals, because they’re not watching how the game is actually played.

Mascherano is a good example of a player who can, in a sense, not necessarily do much in a game. He’s a brilliantly gifted player, but he doesn’t have to do much given that his mastery of space and time organizes—makes the whole thing cohere. You need a player like Mascherano, as [Diego] Maradona said a couple of years ago. The Argentinian team is Mascherano and you find 10 others. His is the first name on the sheet. And these players are not really understood.

“Argentina did not play well today, but it also didn’t allow the opponent to play well, and that’s important.” – Maradona, 2014.

Another great one—there’s a photograph of him in the book—Claude Makélélé. Same thing. He used to be called the water carrier, cause he just carried the water. He just carried the team. There’s a great player called [Nemanja] Matić, played for Chelsea last year, same thing. So what interests me in football is that stuff. It’s not obvious. Football is a subtle art.