Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”

From Fascism to Populism in History: Federico Finchelstein’s New Book

For New School for Social Research Professor of History Federico Finchelstein, the present-day stakes of engaging with the history of populism could not be more critical.

As Finchelstein puts it in his new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press), “Populism’s past challenges to egalitarian forms of democracy continue in the present and are now threatening the future of our own democratic times.” He contends that a historical understanding of modern populism—whose roots he also traces back to the earliest days of twentieth century fascism—has become critical in any analysis of contemporary politics.

Differently put, our capacity to respond to the challenges presented by populism depends crucially upon our willingness and ability to acknowledge and process the lessons of history.

Having grown up under military dictatorship in Argentina, and having studied various forms of authoritarianism throughout his career as an academic, Finchelstein finds it surprising that his work has gained such sudden and urgent relevance in the United States and around the world. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency, Finchelstein suggests that the United States has become the global leader of populism. But it is hardly alone in grappling with populist movements, marking only the most recent in a long string of developments around the world. From Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Brexit, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front—among many others—populism is on the march around the world.

At the same time, it is the 2016 presidential election and the success of populism in the United States that most intrigued Finchelstein, at the very least because President Trump represents the first modern populist to hold the office here. “I never thought these issues would hit so close to my home in New York,” he said in a recent conversation with Research Matters. Reflecting on his longtime commitment to researching the history of fascism and populism, Finchelstein recalled his feelings about the intellectual legacy of The New School upon his arrival in 2006. “The New School for Social Research was founded not only on the idea that there was an academic need to resist fascism,” he said, “but also a need to understand it.”

To this tradition of scholarship, Finchelstein brings a distinctive approach to an examination of populism “from the margins,” integrating perspectives from the Global South that commonly remain outside Eurocentric historical narratives about populism’s emergence as a political force. For example, he reminds readers that Argentina’s Juan Perón became the first populist leader to reach power in the postwar era, becoming an example of how to do things for subsequent generations of populists in Latin America and elsewhere. In the subtext of his genealogy of populism, Finchelstein points to an unmistakable through line back to fascism—a line that similarly goes unaddressed in extant scholarship on populism. “Many interpreters of populism have a limited understanding of the historical and genealogical connections between populism and fascism,” Finchelstein explained. “They collapse important historical distinctions and different historical contexts, as well as continuities.”

From Fascism to Populism in History addresses precisely these contextual differences and continuities, providing a nuanced vocabulary for describing the particular ambitions of present-day populists and carefully articulating what it inherits from fascism. “In history,” Finchelstein writes, “fascism was a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in Germany’s case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust.” He adds that its central aim was “to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above.” Although populists often attract what Finchelstein calls “neofascist fellow travelers”—particularly when it comes to the definition of “the people” in ethnic, national, and racial terms—he emphasizes that they typically aim to, “reshape democracy in [an] authoritarian fashion without fully destroying it.” The result might not look like the dissolution of democratic rule, but nevertheless often represents a significant erosion of democratic institutions.

Duncan Foley wins Guggenheim Prize in Economics

Duncan Foley, the Leo Model Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research, has won the 2017 Guggenheim Prize in Economics. In the announcement of its decision, the Guggenheim Prize Committee at Ben Gurion University of the Negev cited Professor Foley’s “major contribution to the field.” Awarded bi-annually, The Guggenheim Prize recognizes lifetime achievement in the field of economics. Foley is the fourth winner of the Guggenheim Prize, joining Professors Bertram Schefold (2009), Sam Hollander (2011), and David Laidler (2015).

“Duncan’s work spans from modeling the contemporary economy to the history of ideas and how it forms our understanding of the present,” said Will Milberg, Dean and Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research. Milberg added, “As one of the most creative and original thinkers in economics for decades, he is very deserving of this honor.”

Professor Foley joined The New School for Social Research in 1999. He was previously Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford University. Joining his numerous papers on topics as diverse as the economics of climate change, financialization and the information economy, and the labor theory of value, his most recent book Adam’s Fallacy (Harvard) presses back against a fundamental assumption at the heart of orthodox economics: that the “economic sphere […] in which the pursuit of self-interest is led by the invisible hand of the market to a socially beneficial outcome,” can be separated from the rest of social life.

In addition reading to his many books and articles, those interested in Professor Foley’s teaching can find video of his 2016 Advanced Microeconomics class at The New School is available on The New School’s YouTube page.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

Social Epistemology and “Orange is the New Black”

Philosopher Emmalon Davis Joins The New School for Social Research

When introducing her research to non-experts, Assistant Professor Emmalon Davis—who recently joined the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research—turns to Orange is the New Black.

Inspired by the prison memoir of convicted white-collar criminal Piper Kerman, the hit Netflix series helpfully illuminates several of Davis’s overlapping interests in ethics, social epistemology, feminist philosophy, and the philosophy of race. In Davis’s words, Orange provides an entry point for examining, “the social processes through which knowledge and interpretive resources are developed within and disseminated across communities.” Specifically, in the show’s portrayal of its disenfranchised female characters, Davis finds a lens through which we can start to recognize how “social biases are a corrupting influence on these processes.”

Davis pointed out that Orange creator Jenji Kohan has referred to the show’s anti-heroine—the white, educated, middle class, blonde felon, Piper Chapman—as a “Trojan horse.” Though Kohan focuses attention on her protagonist, she also introduces (in what constitutes a kind of narrative smuggling) stories about Piper’s fellow prisoners, many of whom are multiply marginalized by virtue of their age, race, class, gender identification, and sexual orientation.

“This strategy has been somewhat successful at bringing marginalized stories into more mainstream visibility,” Davis explained, “but it does so without locating marginalized voices at the center of their own stories.” Even as the show gives voice to stories from the margins, Orange is the New Black risks “reducing these other stories, and the women at their center, to mere props or ornamentation.” It presents marginalized knowledge only in relation to a character whose identity comports with established conventions about who should belong at the center of a narrative.

To unpack this problem, Davis suggests we need to examine how social biases perpetuate such conventions, not just on television, but also in lived experience.

In her most recent scholarship, the concept of “epistemic injustice” has been especially influential. Defined by CUNY Graduate Center Professor Miranda Fricker, epistemic injustice serves as a framework for describing the effects of bias when individuals interact with one another as knowers and testifiers. The concept can be deployed to reveal the obstacles marginalized individuals face when attempting to share their knowledge with a prejudiced audience.

“Fricker’s account emphasizes the ways that prejudiced interlocutors dismiss marginalized knowers altogether,” Davis said. In these cases, bias prevents certain testifiers from serving as knowers, despite their possession of knowledge. Davis approaches epistemic injustice from the opposite direction, instead interrogating “the harms that arise when dominant audiences actually do engage with marginalized knowers.” Again, the case of Orange is the New Black proves instructive, as it provides an example of the appropriation of marginalized voices into dominant narratives.

“Marginal knowers are not seen as viable testifiers in their own right,” Davis said, “Their voices are mediated.”

Yet even as marginalized knowers are frequently pushed to the sidelines of discourse, so too do they find themselves called upon to serve as representatives of the communities they are seen to inhabit. As Davis put it, “They face the possibility of being over-taxed in certain environments by requests to describe, for the edification of dominant others, what it feels like to live under conditions of oppression.” She pointed to college campuses, classrooms, and activist communities as environments in which marginalized knowers find themselves in this double bind: silenced by conditions of structural oppression and yet expected to educate the privileged about the nature and impact of their oppression and the way that oppressive structures affect social living.” Davis clarified that, “this educative work plays an indispensable role in our collective ability to undermine oppressive social structures,” but at the same time, “we need to pay attention to this dual nature of epistemic harm—ignored on one hand and overburdened with requests to educate on the other.”

Creating more equitable spaces entails adequate recognition of and compensation for the labor that marginalized knowers contribute in social spaces.

Davis similarly calls attention to the reality of marginalized bodies, and to considerations of which bodies are acknowledged in the spaces of medicine and bioethics. “Particularly within reproductive medicine,” she said, “marginalized individuals are subjected to violence and fail to receive the medical resources they need to flourish.” Citing women, people of color, persons with disabilities, and LGBT individuals as having been especially subject to the “medical gaze” throughout history, Davis aims to expose instances in which social identity mediates our relationships to the very institutions upon which we often rely to make our bodies and lives habitable.

In all of her scholarship, Davis suggested that she attempts to make philosophical concepts accessible to multiple communities of knowers—including those who find themselves underrepresented within the discipline of philosophy. Describing an interest in expanding what counts as philosophical discourse, Davis said that she takes “interesting philosophical questions and writes about them in a way that synthesizes lived social experiences and real-world everyday problems.”

This effort extends to the classroom, where Davis hopes that she can help, “remove some of the barriers that have prevented women and people of color from entering into philosophical spaces.” In a discipline where rigor and inaccessibility are often a euphemism for opacity, Davis aims to promote inquiry that activates student energy for grappling with philosophy, while creating spaces for genuine interdisciplinary conversation.

Citing The New School’s open curriculum, she expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing together students and faculty from across the university. “The intellectual resources here at The New School are immense,” she said, “and I’m really excited to be a part of this community.”