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.

Human Sciences After the Human

The world in which we live today has little to do with the world in which most of the academic disciplines that comprise the human sciences were founded. What does it mean to study “the human” in our times, and what are the limitations of this practice?

These questions are the very center of the work of Tobias Rees, 2018-2019 Reid Hoffman Professor for the Humanities at The New School, and affiliated faculty in The New School for Social Research’s Department of Anthropology. Rees draws on various sources of knowledge, and his fields of study range from brain science to artificial intelligence (AI), and from microbiome research to global health.

Weaving a rich and multidisciplinary tapestry — he holds degrees in philosophy, art history, and anthropology — Rees argues that “the world has outgrown our concepts” — that many of our most taken-for-granted concepts are inventions of the modern era that are no longer fit descriptors. He invites us to consider how this sort of intellectual shift might be due to the inadequacies of these concepts themselves, and that a transformation of the human sciences is perhaps not something to be fought against but rather considered and, in some ways, welcomed.

Take, for example, society. Meant to distinguish ‘the human’ from ‘mere’ animals, ‘society’ has also been synonymous with ‘race’ or ‘people’ or ‘nation’. “The idea that humans are social beings, that what defines them in their essence is that they always –– everywhere and every time –– live and have lived in a society, this is an idea that first emerges in the late 18th century, in the context of the French Revolution,” Rees said.

Since our notion of society, and of what kinds of beings we are, has changed very little over time, the term carries significant conceptual baggage and presents a problem for contemporary scholars. “There are many aspects of the present that we cannot subsume under the heading of the social as it was conceived of in the early 19th century,” Rees explains. “They range in style and might not add up. We can begin with the observation that ‘the social’ is usually tied to ‘a society,’ and that arguably not all people who live on a national territory are members of national society. Or we can be more provocative and point out that the assumption that what sets humans apart from animals is their sociality is somewhat untenable: If our neurotransmitters are made of bacteria living in our gut, then where does the human end and its microbiome begin? Are microbes part of society? Or, different example, the learning and thinking machines that artificial intelligence (AI) engineers are building?”

A radical rethinking of society may have profound consequences to our political lives. A question that preoccupies Rees is this: “How can a reformulation of our notion of the social –— maybe even a replacement of that term, given its strong anthropocentrism –— give rise to a new concept of the political, of political theory, of justice?” In other words, how can we understand ourselves and critique our conditions without ideas that rely on outdated assumptions about ourselves?

At present, Rees is exploring how fields like AI, microbiome research, and neuroscience challenge and change our concept of the human. “Your microbiome contributes more gene function to your organism than your own genome,” he says in a recent film. “It’s as if the ‘human’ is such that the thing that human sciences study doesn’t exist.” Similarly, his book Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms (2016) explores the scientific discovery that new cellular tissue emerges in mature brains, proving that the brain is plastic rather than fixed and immutable, and raising new possibilities about what is human.

At the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, he leads the Transformations of the Human project, which places philosophers and artists in key research sites to foster dialogue with technologists, aiming to “render AI and Biotech visible as unusually potent experimental sites for reformulating our vocabulary for thinking about ourselves.”

Rees is attracted to heterodox institutions like the Berggruen Institute and, currently, The New School for Social Research. He believes they hold promise for a new kind of human science research that does not rely on unquestioned concepts and thereby foreclose the emergence of new models. In fact, he names The New School for Social Research “as one place I can actually imagine genuinely new kinds of experiments that could reinvent the human sciences.”

“Every science or discipline assumes that there is a reality sui generis that requires that science in order to comprehend it,” he states. These theoretical assumptions can wear old with age, but more importantly, they restrict our ability to understand the world by defining it in advance. “The cultural anthropologist will always find culture. The sociologist always finds society. Whatever knowledge is produced is either determined or conditioned by the assumptions you start with. It’s always more of the same.”

Social science, insofar as it presumes to understand what a society or the human can be, forecloses genuine discovery of challenging, novel, facts that run counter to our current notions of what humanity is.

Rees’ antidote is what he terms ‘exposure’ or ‘field sciences.’ An ethnographer approaches his subject with conceptual humility, not assuming that any of her concepts will be the same to those used by a different culture. In this humility and openness to understand without reducing the new information to predetermined frameworks, the field ethnographer makes space for genuine discovery.

“Imagine doing fieldwork in order to find out if there are things that escape the concepts of the human implicit in the analytical tool kit the human sciences have been contingent on. Imagine fieldwork as a kind of exposure of miniature concepts of the human, and the job of the researcher were to detect mutations of these miniature humans. Imagine, furthermore, that this would be an ongoing, never-ending project,” Rees explains.

His latest book, After Ethnos (2018), aims at de-anthropologizing anthropology –– and to provide a rough, tentative sketch of what he refers to as philosophically and poetically-inclined field science. “I’m trying to build research projects that make these new emerging fields visible as experimental laboratories for a ceaseless reconfiguration of the human, as fields that open up new epistemic spaces that allow one to explore possibilities for being human after ‘the human.’”

Jeremy Varon in Conversation: The Meanings and Legacies of the 1960s

The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of 1968, the iconic year of a seismic decade in the U.S. and around the world. Amid countless museum exhibits, academic conferences, and media retrospectives, many drew comparisons between 1968 and today around increasing global turbulence and sense of unease.

Professor of History Jeremy Varon is an American historian specializing in the 1960s, and in 2008 co-founded The Sixties, the first academic journal solely devoted to scholarly study of the decade. He recently reflected on the 1968-2018 comparison, and on the ways in which we study, celebrate, and remember our past, for Public Seminar.

Research Matters spoke with Varon about the topic, and the more personal dimensions he brings to his research. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Research Matters: In your work, you discuss the idea of nostalgia, and of the “anniversary glut” as a double-edged sword. You open your Editor’s Statement [of The Sixties] by stating that what you want to do in the journal is not traffic in nostalgia but provide an actual professional history–provide a memorialization of the period that is more nuanced. What do you see as the pitfalls of nostalgia? And what do you think is its power or allure?

Professor of History Jeremy VaronJeremy Varon: The 1960s, and 1968 in particular, are endlessly memorialized, especially in those societies that, during that time, underwent profound transformations. Part of that memorialization is often a reliving of that past by those who shaped it, and that memorial culture can be either superficial or substantive depending on the media. This can be a wonderful point of entry for younger people who aren’t familiar with this period, and a wonderful incitement to memory for the people who lived through it. But for a discerning professional scholar, it’s a mixed bag: there’s exposure of an important era that I’ve dedicated my life to studying professionally, but yet a kind of reduction of history to a set of ruling cliches.

I define nostalgia as an affection for one’s past simply because it was one’s past. Engaging the ‘60s beyond nostalgia involves a combination of assiduous historical study that tries to understand the alchemy that produced a singularly robust era of global revolt in the history of human civilization. History never fully goes away; it is with us, and we live with it. Still, half a century later, the ‘60s represent an epic frame of reference–partly mythological–to which people appeal when they want to champion justice, confront illegitimate power, and advance the project of human liberation. In my work, and in the journal, we try to honor both: detached scholarly analysis, and then ethically and existentially engaged connection with a history that I see as an unfinished project.

RM: I’m interested in the personal aspect of it for you. What are the elements of the ‘60s to which you’re most drawn in your research?

JV: I was born in 1967. As a child, I was obsessed with the ‘60s and wanted to participate in whatever of it was still available to me. [By college in the 1980s], my life consisted of reading philosophy and literature, playing the guitar with friends, and ceaselessly protesting, while living in what was essentially a campus commune. I saw myself as in some sense trying to deeply realize the ethical vision of the 60’s movers and shakers: Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, people I saw as these larger-than-life moral superheroes. When I started to study the era in a more sophisticated way, I remained inspired by the genuine heroism but also very curious about the moral and political complexities of the era.

The Sixties: A journal of History, Politics and Culture is the only academic, peer reviewed journal to focus solely on this transformative decade of history.

RM: You write that your hope for The Sixties journal, which celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, is to sharpen and expand the terms of established debates and open up new ones. What debates about the ‘60s were ongoing in 2008?

JV: The journal was founded during a time at which there was no such thing as “1960s Studies.” It was explicitly meant to be a catalyst for an emerging subfield as opposed to a disciplinary reorientation. I think the journal has succeeded in being that kind of home that has helped the field evolve. The single greatest evolution has been the maturation of the idea of the global ‘60s–that there were spirited revolts that were happening almost synchronically in diverse settings throughout the world, and that to understand the ‘60s deeply you had to understand the causes of this unbelievable synchronicity far transcended coincidence. By now, the global ‘60s as a framing concept has achieved a kind of hegemony and I think it’s increasingly understood that the grand narrative in which the revolts of the ‘60s participated was decolonization: the “Third World “trying to liberate itself from the chains of colonialism, inspiring in the process all kinds of freedom struggles that might exist outside of an explicit colonial context.

As to where we have broken new ground, I would point to an essay about East Germany’s adoption of the paper dress, which was invented by Andy Warhol and other Western pop artists as a kind of disposable art that made some comment on mass consumer culture. In East Germany at the time, they had a shortage of cotton and needed to produce things cheaply. So they marketed this paper dress as a kind of wearable fashion. Though it was the product of decadent, bourgeois Western modernism, East Germany also wanted their youth to participate just enough in the global youth culture so they wouldn’t feel left out and disdainful toward their elderly communist masters. That’s what I call a “global ‘60s adventure story,” where you have the migration and resignification of certain texts, artifacts, and impulses in disparate geographies, conditioned by geopolitical and economic conflicts.

A second landmark essay is a major rethinking of the counterculture by David Farber. He used the concept of “right livelihood,” a Buddhist idea–that young people wanted to separate themselves from the crassly materialistic mainstream and live lives of meaning, but also had to earn enough money to have a proper livelihood. The essay provides a reinterpretation of the counterculture not simply as the enemy of white-collar, soul-deadening bureaucracy, but a movement of young people who went to work to try to build, if only in small ways, a more humane society. Farber’s essay is absolutely required reading for anybody who does anything new with the idea of the counterculture.

RM: Bill Clinton once said, “If you look back on the ’60s and think there was more good than harm, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” I’m interested in the way that the ‘60s, and especially the memory of this time and the way we make meaning of this era, defines political lines. How do you see that playing out?

JV: I would argue that the memory wars over the ‘60s are ongoing. Clinton’s diagnosis more or less still holds. Many people have said that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is a reference to a pre-1960s past, where white supremacy was substantially uncontested; [second-wave] feminism hadn’t yet happened; America was very much a white, Christian nation, as defined by the people at the top of social and cultural ladder. Progressive America, broadly defined, wants to deepen values of pluralism, ecological stewardship, emancipation–the hallmarks of the ‘60s.

There are, however, twists. For example, a lot of conservatives see themselves as today’s great rebels, fighting against the politically correct, progressive, Hollywood, beltway establishment. The younger set of conservatives feel like they are the ones who are authentically fighting a new kind of liberal establishment.

RM: As a historian, what are some of the ways in which you have been challenged and have challenged other people to push past that kind of easy division of the 60s between “it was mostly good” or “it was mostly bad”?

JV: I would say that the single greatest example is how I present the ultra-radicalism of the Weathermen. People who denounce the Weathermen think that I’m an apologist for terrorism, while people who are closer to their vision think that I represent some kind of liberal mainstream that marginalizes radicalism. I don’t think that either of these accusations is true or fair, and neither speaks to the complexity with which I try to present a morally and politically complex history.

My other intervention is to get my colleagues to recognize that our sustained interest in the 1960s isn’t simply because a lot of important stuff happened then. Its enduring appeal is the power of its political and moral, world-changing vision of a more just and more free world. And more and more as I get deeper and deeper into this identity, I’m owning that sense of wanting to sustain a legacy of contestation in how I do my scholarship and, in a deeper sense, how I live my live. And that has meant a return to that sense of awe I had as a young boy looking at this history just out of my reach, one that seemed almost infinite in its mandate to future generations to struggle in their own times and in their own terms to make a better world.

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.

Daniel Rodriguez-Navas Tackles Foucault, Religion, and Ethics

If you’re looking for Daniel Rodriguez-Navas, you’ll find him firmly at the intersection of ethics and the history of philosophy. You’ll also find him in an office at The New School of Social Research, where he is our new Assistant Professor of Philosophy. Research Matters spoke to him on his international background, Foucault, and whether a secular ethics can really exist.

Research Matters: Welcome to The New School for Social Research! We’re so excited you’re a part of our community. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your life? How did you arrive here?

Daniel Rodriguez-Navas: Well, I come from Venezuela, but I took a long detour to get here. When I was 17, I moved to Hong Kong to attend a United World College, a school that brings students from all over the world (primarily on scholarship) in an attempt to cultivate cross-cultural understanding. Then, I spent one year in Venezuela, then five years in France for undergraduate and masters degrees, then again back to Venezuela, but this time to teach while applying to grad school. Finally, I did my PhD at the University of Chicago and spent the last two years as a postdoc at Middlebury College.

RM: That’s a pretty global itinerary! At what point along the way did you become interested in philosophy, and how was that journey impacted by your travels?

DRN: My interest in philosophy was, in a way, always there. But one its main focal points, at least earlier on, was my relationship to religion. I was brought up Catholic, and attended a Jesuit school growing up in Venezuela. I took religion very seriously. But at some point early on, when I was maybe about eleven, I started questioning things a bit more thoroughly. I didn’t have many resources at the time. I found a copy of Descartes Meditations in my house. And later, through my older sister, I started reading Nietzsche and some of the existentialists — Sartre, Camus —  and that really kindled my interest in philosophy, and helped me better understand my concerns about religion, and to form my own attitude towards it. But that was a long process…

At any rate, this, and the experience in the school in Hong Kong, where I had a group of friends who also enjoyed reading and talking about and all sorts of philosophical questions, sufficed to make me want to study philosophy. Since then, I have always lived wherever studying philosophy brought me. France seemed like an ideal place to study, and education in France was almost free. So after a quite intense language studying regime, off I went.

Then, during my third year in France, I took a course on Husserl’s Fifth Logical Investigation. I found it fascinating. It seem to me that Husserl offered a more radical and plausible version Kant’s epistemological project. But I also realized that that course wasn’t enough, that understanding Husserl’s project would take a lot more time and work. So I decided to do my MA thesis on post-Husserl and Kant’s views about the role of imagination in the constitution of experience. That was my first thesis. Since it focused on the second (post-1913) Husserl, I decided to work on the early Husserl for the second thesis, on Husserl and Frege’s theories of proper names. And after that, for a number of reasons, intellectual, professional, personal and I must admit, financial, I decided to come to the U.S. While I was in France I had been working with Jocelyn Benoist, whose work and overall approach to philosophy I found (and continue to find) deeply insightful. It turned out that he got a position as a regular visiting professor at Chicago, at the time. So at that point, Chicago seemed to offer the best of two worlds for me.

RM: Do you consider yourself an ethicist, a Foucauldian, a political philosopher, none of the above?

DRN:  With respect to ethics: I grew up in a world that was created by a God. And of course, ethical questions were at the center of the worries about religion I mentioned before, to such an extent that my change of attitude towards religion was ethically motivated: it seemed to me that living ethically required giving up religion; that one can only live genuinely ethically—if one actually has a secular standpoint. Actually has, not merely lives or thinks ‘as if’ one did. All of this is of course terribly naïve, and even terribly Christian. But that’s the view I reasoned myself into back then. And yet, when it came to philosophy, for the longest time I had the view that ethical questions were the most complicated, and that I needed to get clearer about various fundamental metaphysical and epistemological questions ‘before I was ready’ for ethics.

All this to say: I always found ethics fascinating, and pressing, but always went out of my way to avoid writing on it. So when I was in grad school, I started worked on a project on self-consciousness: on the cognitive resources that a conscious creature must have in order to be capable of the kind of first person experience and thought that we’re capable of. But I also took seminars on Foucault with Arnold Davidson, and that’s when I was hooked. I had the inkling, the hunch, that I could find a deeply original, secular approach to ethics in his work….a rejection of the view [that]…unless the ‘authority’ of moral claims can be traced back to something external to us, or to something internal to us, but common to us all qua human beings… (something, you may say, external to each individual’s will), such claims lack ‘authority’ altogether.

I have the sense that while most approaches to ethics today take themselves to be secular, they remain thoroughly religious. Indeed, much of our ethical vocabulary, the sets of questions that we ask, the way we reason about ethics, are still largely shaped by the Abrahamic traditions that long dominated our tradition, both within and outside the discipline. And I was interested in exploring, by working on Foucault, a truly secular approach to the question “how to live?”, one that did dismiss various forms of relativism and voluntarism from the outset, but that did also avoid the pitfall of offering an error theory of ethical experience, or that inadvertently rendered the latter completely unintelligible (as radical versions of relativism and voluntarism, and various other metaphysically parsimonious approaches to ethics often do).

So yes, I consider myself an ethicist. And within ethics, I do have a Foucauldian approach. But more generally I think of myself as less of a Foucauldian than a Foucault scholar. I am less interested in ‘defending’ Foucault’s views than in getting them right and using the parts that I find interesting and useful to address various topics in ethics.  More broadly, I think of myself as a historian of philosophy, who works primarily, but not exclusively, on 19th and 20th Century European philosophy.

RM: What do you make of the relationship between Foucault’s early work and his late work? What is the scholarship missing, and why should the general public care?

DRN: Foucault spent his career examining the interplay between knowledge and scientific discourse, mechanisms of power and political institutions, and later on, what kind of stance an individual can take in the face of the ways in which power structures and traditional ways of thinking, being and acting (with some of their good aspects, but also with many of their horrendous ones) tend to perpetuate themselves. Foucault not only offered insightful and original analyses of these issues, but offered conceptual resources for developing effective strategies for individual and collective self-determination. All good reasons for to care about his work, perhaps specially in the current political climate.

Now if you ask me what the scholarship is missing, my view—but I acknowledge that this is controversial—is that a careful, comprehensive, scholarly analysis of the last period of Foucault’s career, the ethical period, is missing, and more precisely, of Foucault’s idea of an aesthetics of existence, and why he took such an idea to be ethically interesting.  This is what my main current project is on, so there’s a lot to say. But here’s one quick way to put the issue: the notion of the aesthetics of existence captures Foucault’s attempt to rethink ethical normativity, to move away from a deeply engrained conception of our relationship to ethical norms of conduct, not just the explicit norms that have the forms of commands, but to all sorts of standards of behavior that we either subscribe to or that we take others to hold us to.

However, it can be hard to see this (and how powerful the way of thinking that emerges can be), because Foucault passed away while he was working on this. What tends to happen in the scholarship is that Foucault emphasizes the importance of idea of “the aesthetics of existence” in his approach to ethics, but people recoil almost by reflex. The idea that ethics is about living life as a work of art, it really can sound like ivory tower babble at its worst… think of someone facing a real ethical challenge, or about the global trends in political discourse in the last few years, and then someone comes along and says, “Oh…if you want to find out what to do, just think of your life as a work of art!”

Partly because of this, and partly because Foucault famously resisted, for the most part, offering a positive ethical theory, with commands and prescriptions as to what we should do, even some of the most sophisticated readers present him as having a rather superficial engagement with ethics, and as depriving us of the means for engaging in serious political resistance. So the tendency has been to minimize the centrality of the notion within Foucault’s ethical views, and if not, to minimize the aesthetic dimension of the notion. And of course, this would be right, if all Foucault had to say about ethics is that we should treat ourselves as works of art. But I’m afraid that to do this is to proceed too quickly. Instead of really trying to understand what the aesthetics of existence is supposed to be and why Foucault took it to be so promising, scholars tend either to criticize Foucault for it, or to try to defend him from such criticisms by minimizing its importance. So we’re in this peculiar situation that while the concept has received a lot of attention, it’s content and role within Foucault’s overall ethical views, and thereby the views themselves, remains largely unaccounted for.

As for the other question, I believe the connection between the early work and the late ethical thought is internal and organic. There are no big breaks, merely shifts, sometimes methodological, sometimes perspectival. But Foucault worked on the same set of interconnected issues, with a more or less homogeneous approach, from about 1953 until his death in 1984 (this again is somewhat controversial). Simplifying matters a little: how can we minimize the permanent risk that, through our passive acceptance of traditional ways of thinking and being, we are more or less inadvertently participating in various exclusionary practices, and justifying them through scientific, medical, moral, and political discourse?

In the final period of his career, one of the focal points of Foucault’s work is ethical discourse and practices, what we may think of as ethical experience. He is trying to work out our relation to ethical norms insofar as they are rules for life, that is, rules for living self-conscious organisms. Even in the late work, with Foucault’s insistence that the subject-matter (the substance) of the aesthetics of existence is life (bios), he is trying to find an approach to ethics that emphasizes the fact that it, ethics, has always been about the governance of living organisms, of each individual organism by itself, of all by others, and of the interplay between these two forms of governance.

So that’s one way of thinking about the continuity of his project over the years, up until the final stage. But another connection is the development of an approach to ethics that makes it possible to understand the possibility of effective resistance. If power is so pervasive, so ubiquitous as Foucault argues in the mid-seventies, then how is resistance possible? The aesthetics of existence captures the rudiments of Foucault’s answer to that.

What interests Foucault about the notion, I think, is the parallel between the artists and the ethical subject’s relationships to aesthetic and ethical norms. Both live within a tradition, guided by the implicit and explicit norms that regulate conduct within the cultural setting that is an expression of that tradition. Both face the task of building on those norms in order to transform their practice. In the case of artistic practice this is clear enough: the aspiration is not to imitate the old style by simply accepting the old norms, but to transform the style by reconfiguring the norms. In the case of ethics and politics, the idea of transformation is important if one thinks­—as Foucault rightly does­—that ethical discourse is ethically dangerous, in that it can be (and how many times hasn’t it been and isn’t still to day!) used to marginalize and exclude people, to deprive them of their entitlement to be treated ethically. And in both cases, arts and ethics, it matters that one cannot simply shed the tradition and start anew from scratch. Traditional norms are constitutive of us, they thoroughly inform how we are, how we think, how we feel and what we think is possible. So how can we resist the pressure of tradition? That is one of the main questions that he is trying to answer through his work on ethics. The aesthetics of existence is key insofar as it offers a model for resistance, and for rethinking ethical normativity in a way that opens up new pathways for resistance.

RM: Shifting from your research to the present: What was your image of The New School when you were on the market, and why did you want to come here given the choice? What did you think The New School was, and why did it seem like a good place to continue developing this line of research?

DRN: The New School is a very prestigious institution, and the philosophy department is very well known. So of course it was a great position. One might have written on philosophy of language at a very analytic philosophy oriented program and still want to work at The New School! But, more important, it was an ideal job for me, because The New School is a stronghold of continental philosophy, of historically informed philosophy (the phrase used to be and still should be redundant, but it isn’t here and now!) and also for politically engaged philosophy. And  there is an emphasis on the concreteness of philosophy, of a way of doing philosophy that isn’t just about the perpetual proliferation of philosophical discourse, from and to philosophers alone. People here try to keep the world in view and want philosophy to be an agent of change. The faculty, and the history of the department, are really remarkable in this regard. So for me this wasn’t just a great job among others, but it was, to be quite frank, a dream job!