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.

Supporting Women in Philosophy

Philosophy takes the most fundamental and universal problems of humanity quite seriously. Yet, as a discipline, it continues to face its own fundamental problem: As of 2016, only 30 percent of undergraduate students, 30 percent of graduate students, and nearly 21 percent of professors in Philosophy are women. Those numbers are even lower for women of color and queer and trans women. Many women who do pursue advanced study in philosophy speak of a serious climate problem, and of informal barriers that keep them from fully flourishing in the discipline.

In 2001, students at The New School for Social Research organized People in Support of Women in Philosophy (PSWIP), a local branch of a widespread network of loosely affiliated Women in Philosophy groups that support and foster scholarship by women in philosophy, and bring attention to some of the most difficult barriers women in a field dominated by men.

Among the most successful and enduring student-organized groups at NSSR, PSWIP has evolved since its founding 18 years ago. What began as a supportive place to share and discuss feminist philosophy has expanded to focus on supporting women in the department with varying research interests. Recent Philosophy doctoral graduate and longtime PSWIP member Juniper Alcorn recalls the shift: “First it was workshopping papers, but eventually it was also about advancing the work of women in the department as well as creating opportunities for them to make connections and other professional development initiatives.”

This year’s PSWIP facilitators, Philosophy MA students Katie Gruszecki and Tara Mastrelli, have continued that tradition. Describing PSWIP as a “research and publications support group,” the group’s main focus is its weekly meetings in which members workshop a variety of research, from papers and abstracts to oral presentations and exams. During a recent session, Gruszecki presented a paper on Hegel and bodily harm. “I show the difficulty in accepting Hegel’s argument for denying one the right to die with dignity,” she summarizes. “I argue for the right to die with dignity due to the necessity to abstain from violence involved in staying alive under certain conditions.”

Discussion facilitation during PSWIP meetings reflects the group’s mission and members’ concerns about climate in the field. Once limited to women in the department, PSWIP is now open to philosophers of all genders. Male allies are regular contributors and group discussions run on the “progressive stack” technique; as moderators make a list of who would like to speak, women and gender minorities are given priority.

While typical philosophical discussions can often take on a rather antagonistic tone, PSWIP cultivates an atmosphere that is more constructive. “Here, people who’d feel reticent to speak in class can have a more inviting space in which to share their ideas,” Gruszecki says. Members accomplish this by placing greater emphasis on providing a charitable interpretation of others’ work, and by being aware of unhelpful interpersonal dynamics. “This means that we try to give the most generous interpretation of other people’s positions, as well as providing each other the benefit of the doubt,” Mastrelli adds.

“I always think of PSWIP as a platform to not only have these discussions about the state of the field that makes it necessary for this kind of group to exist, but to also create a platform for people to succeed in philosophy,” says Alcorn. Informal networks of peer mentorship have formed through PSWIP outside the classroom, and the group has supported initiatives including a dissertation support group and alumni network.

PSWIP journal covers from 2010-2013

One of PSWIP’s major initiatives this academic year is the relaunch of their annual journal, which had been on hiatus since 2014. The journal showcases papers that have been workshopped in PSWIP throughout the year, providing readers with a view into the type of rigorous work that can be created and celebrated through a supportive scholarly environment. It also provides members with an opportunity to gain editorial experience and have their work published. Past journal editors have gone on to hold faculty positions and attend doctoral programs at Stony Brook University, University of Texas at Austin, and Emory University, among others. And through a new agreement with the Philosophy Documentation Center, the journal will now also reach readers beyond NSSR. 

While all of these efforts serve to lift up marginalized voices, PSWIP is also working to change ongoing gender, sexual, and racial dynamics in the field. The group is challenging NSSR’s Philosophy Department to explicitly address some of the most pressing issues concerning marginalizing gender dynamics within the discipline: implicit bias, stereotype threat, and a general sense that women, queer, and trans students’ contributions are less valued. “We want to support philosophy students, graduate or undergraduate, who face oppression on the basis of their gender,” says Gruszecki. Reflecting that commitment, this year’s PSWIP Colloquium speaker is writer and critic Andrea Long Chu, who will discuss her forthcoming book, Females: A Concern (Verso, 2019), on March 14, 2019.

In previous years, PSWIP members conducted student surveys that showed considerable differences between the classroom experiences of men and people of other genders. These differences reflected a sense that men tend to dominate not just readings, but also in-class discussions as well as more informal departmental social dynamics. This survey led to many important conversations, calls for more attentive practices on the part of administration and faculty around class management, event planning, and even hiring and admissions practices.

The current PSWIP leadership looks to build on this legacy. “This year we’ve launched a gender dynamics share space, which is a Google Form that people can use to anonymously collect testimony to discuss internally or bring up at the yearly departmental town hall,” Mastrelli explains. “Perhaps this is something that doesn’t require action now, but will allow students to feel heard today and perhaps someone to feel they are not alone tomorrow.” By building this database of shared experiences, current members seek to support their fellow students of today as well as build a stronger foundation and brighter future for future Philosophy scholars.

Connecting with Ancient Greece through the Onassis Fellowship

Over the decades, faculty and students in the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research have earned a reputation for advancing scholarship of contemporary Continental philosophy, especially that of Germany and France. But since 2014, those interested in Ancient Greek philosophy, history, language, and culture have received a tremendous boost thanks to the Onassis Foundation Fellowship. By providing generous funding for several doctoral students as well as a dedicated lecturer, the fellowship is helping emerging scholars access critical sources, develop new interpretations, and draw important connections between ancient and twenty-first century thought.

Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy (above right), helped bring the special philanthropic relationship to life. Having worked closely with the Onassis Foundation for nearly a decade, he felt “able to show them the kind of work that our students and faculty are doing and its close relation to ancient Greek thought, [as well as] the importance that learning Greek has to philosophical studies at The New School for Social Research,” he says. “I have been absolutely delighted with the collaboration.”

One of his first acts as fellowship program director was to hire Mirjam Kotwick (above left). Originally from Germany and trained as a philologist, she is creating an academic career that bridges the classics and philosophy. “In my work I strive to connect my background and interest in classics with all of these philosophical questions that I have. That can be institutionally challenging. But right now at The New School, the Onassis Fellowship is really bringing both things together. That’s the perfect, ideal setting for me,” says Kotwick, whose recent research includes a book on the Derveni Papyrus, an ancient Macedonian text, and several papers on Orphic poetry, philological methodology, the textual transmission of Aristotle, and allegorical interpretation in the ancient world.

As the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language, Kotwick serves as both a teacher and an expert guide to undergraduate and graduate students interested in a wide range of topics. Her ancient Greek language classes attract philosophy students as well as curious students from other disciplines. “Just learning a language is different than studying philosophy,” she says. “I really try to keep the interests that my students bring to the class by confronting them with original philosophical texts from as early on as possible.” She also informally advises students whose projects touch on her fields of expertise, working with them to ensure they’ve translated or understood those original texts correctly and sharing in the excitement of discovering new ideas.

Kotwick also leads more intensive, topic-based graduate seminars with titles such as “Death in Ancient Greek Thought,” “Aristotle’s Search for Wisdom,” and “The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry.” Onassis Fellows and philosophy doctoral students Samuel Yelton and Dora Suarez have found the latter class particularly influential for their academic journeys.

Samuel Yelton, PhD student in Philosophy and Onassis Fellow
PhD candidate Samuel Yelton

An alumnus of St. John’s College and its Great Books program, Yelton chose The New School for Social Research for graduate study because of the school’s specific values, namely “not treating ideas as timeless things, but as objects that have a history and various understandings through time, allowing people to be independent from any dogma in their scholarship.”

For his MA thesis, he examined Book X of The Republic, focusing on Plato’s argument that philosophy is incompatible with poetry and his claim that in the ideal city, poetry ought to be banned. “It’s all about understanding the distinction between form and content, and how an idea’s form can disqualify it from what philosophy is meant to do,” he explains. “Poetry can evade rational criticism, and the seductiveness of its form allows for potentially harmful ideas to get a hold of the soul.”

Now writing his doctoral dissertation, Yelton is diving deeper into this argument by examining a new wave of academic work that ties Greek philosophy more tightly into its broader cultural contours. “Even if Plato posited this quarrel, then there’s still the influences of the surrounding culture, which is largely poetic, as well as the understanding that poetry shouldn’t be understood as an amorphous concept, that there are specific genres [by author]: Homer, Sappho, and Hesiod. Understanding Plato requires that we understand these nuances.”

Suarez came to the U.S. from Uruguay 15 years ago to study modern languages, but unexpectedly fell in love with philosophy. “I feel that we have still not overcome many of the questions that the Greeks were asking,” she says.

Dora Suarez, PhD student in Philosophy and Onassis Fellow
PhD candidate Dora Suarez

In her doctoral dissertation, she is exploring the concept of visibility and its uses within the history of philosophy. “Just as we cannot take Truth and Knowledge for granted we also cannot — and should not —  take for granted what counts as visible or invisible, or to be able to see and/or being seeing,” she says. “My goal is to develop a meticulous philosophical recasting of visibility and its implications, in a way that brings to the fore the ways in which we human beings constantly struggle to resist visibility and to resist through visibility.”

This topic is relevant to both ancient and contemporary concerns, and a recent book on the topic is helping Suarez make those connections. “[In] Andrea Nightingale’s Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy, she describes a transition between wander to wonder, from a vita activa to the vita contemplativa. I became intrigued in thinking about how this change to a kind of seeing that has nothing to do with the eyes and that starts with Plato can be traced to the way we think about visibility today,” Suarez says.

Similarly, other Onassis Fellows are also investigating the historical origins of familiar concepts, such as Justice or Nobility, that are now at the center of contemporary conversations. Teresa Casas, from Spain, is using her dissertation to examine the intersection of theatre and politics both in ancient times and today. Angelica Stathopoulos, from Sweden, is exploring philosophy’s historical relation to passivity within ethics and politics. In each of these cases, Greek philosophy offers insight into how such ideas first entered the stream of philosophy, restoring an important sense of perspective and offering a key to understanding their applications and limits.

More broadly, the Onassis Fellowship and its focused attention on all aspects of ancient thought has not only encouraged the department widen its temporal and geographic scope beyond the contemporary Continental, but helped faculty and students alike renew a commitment to looking past a typical disciplinary distinction between “doing the history of philosophy” and “doing philosophy” to really do it all — and well, too.

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.

Transatlantic Exchange: The NSSR-TU Dresden Connection

That a leading expert on fascism and populism should find a second home at a top engineering and technology university seems, at first glance, unlikely.

But a home was exactly what New School for Social Research (NSSR) Professor of History Federico Finchelstein found during a faculty exchange at the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden).

“There are strong shared intellectual affinities between TU Dresden and NSSR,” says Finchelstein. “Professor Hans Vorlander and his colleagues, who are the world experts on German populism, have taught me a great deal, and students at Dresden are really interested in these topics.”

That academic compatibility has helped the program flourish and, more recently, evolve into an important transatlantic exchange primarily for students. Each year, TU Dresden graduate students come to New York to take courses and join the NSSR community in conferences and more, while advanced NSSR doctoral students travel to Dresden to teach a compressed two-week course to undergraduate and MA students.

The exchange program was started by New School Board of Trustees member Henry Arnhold. Born and raised in Dresden, his grandfather and father had served as honorary senators at the university — until the family fled Germany for New York in 1937.

“After the reunification in 1990, I returned to my former hometown,”  he remembered. This historic occasion prompted Arnhold to create a fertile new connection between his birthplace and his adopted hometown of New York. “Since we do not believe in collective guilt and I like to build bridges, I proposed an exchange program in the social sciences, supporting three TU Dresden graduate students at The New School yearly.” The first group arrived in 1992 and included “young historian Prof. Dr. Simone Laessig, who is today the head of the German Historic Institute in Washington, DC,” which has since collaborated with The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Research Matters spoke with NSSR’s most recent exchange participants: Randi Irwin, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, and Miguel Paley, a PhD candidate in Philosophy. Chosen for their strong teaching records as well as faculty commendations on their research, they have served as visiting lecturers in the political theory department at TU Dresden, focusing on migration

Irwin’s research centers on the plight of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. Displaced from their homeland in Western Sahara, the refugee community has retained a state structure that manages the refugee camps, providing some services and dealing with governance issues in preparation for the day when Western Sahara can regain its independence. This research, as well as Irwin’s previous coursework at NSSR, formed the basis for her Dresden course syllabus.

PhD candidate Randi Irwin

“I taught a survey on postcolonialism and decolonization. I had one graduate student, and the rest were senior-level undergraduates. They were all from philosophy, political theory, and a few from international affairs. Anthropology was something they were quite new to.” Irwin explained that her students seemed eager to engage with the course topics from an anthropological perspective. “They never had classes on gender, they never had classes on race or colonialism, so I ended up with a bunch of students who were really interested in these ideas and for the most part didn’t have access to [them],” she said. “They were really theoretically sophisticated…[but] pretty new to applying theory within a given context,” such as the political question of the aftereffects of colonial intervention.

To aid their learning, Irwin created assignments that she described as “critiques of the construction of the other, critiques of the commodification of knowledge as it relates to the colony. [We] moved through some concepts like knowledge-creation and disciplining and looked at how the political project of colonialism worked,  then moved to considering how that project might remain in place today.”

PhD candidate Miguel Paley

Meanwhile, Paley taught an interdisciplinary class on alienation and ideology. “It aimed at presenting students with readings not always studied in political theory courses, including things like design theory and phenomenology,” which he’s worked on during his time at NSSR.

Paley noted that while the mostly MA students were “from all different disciplines,” they were enthusiastic and engaged with the topic, which they studied intensely. “The class only lasted for two weeks but our time was equivalent to a semester, so we spent 14 hours inside the classroom during that week,” he says. Despite the long hours, he says the students were great. “It was really fun to work with them, and the Dresden faculty were very generous and very welcoming. I really loved it!”

NSSR Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Tsuya Yee sees the effects of the program from a wider perspective. “The exchange creates great teaching opportunities for our students” to work with new and different student populations being educated in different theoretical approaches, she said.

Of course, the benefits of the exchange are felt in New York as well sometimes in unexpected ways. “Some TU Dresden students who come to study at NSSR apply to stay on as full-time students here. It’s a prestigious visiting lecturer position that… allows students to develop their pedagogical and course planning skills in an international setting, all while receiving a healthy stipend and and having their costs covered,” Yee said.

While the program has evolved greatly since its inception years ago, the energy of in-person intellectual and cultural exchange continues enriching both research and relationships. It is what keeps students like Irwin and Paley participating and what keeps faculty like Finchelstein returning year after year and hopefully for years to come.