Benjamin Van Buren on Perception, Illusion, and Returning to New York

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which was circling around Mars, delivered one of the most striking and close-up images of this distant place that had ever been seen by earthlings. The photograph featured what looked like a human face sculpted into the surface of the planet. While many realized that the face was simply a coincidental pattern of light and shadow caught at just the right time, some took this “face on Mars” as evidence of abandoned alien civilizations and government cover-ups. 

Picture and close-up of the “face on Mars” taken by the Viking 1 orbiter

Visual perception has a difficult job. Starting from highly limited sensory input (flat, low-resolution images), it fills in gaps, adding information that was never there to begin with. Such extrapolations can provide an accurate sense of the world, or they can lead us astray. The wonders and folly of perception motivated Benjamin Van Buren, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), to develop a research program concerning the precise mechanics of attention, perceptual inference, and illusion.

But how exactly does one study perception? One approach, which Van Buren favors, is psychophysics, a branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena. Van Buren’s work maps visual inputs onto visual experiences, an approach favored by Gestalt psychologists, who discovered, for example, that how you see something moving depends dramatically on the context in which you view it.

Which dot is circling the other?

Van Buren gives the above example: Which dot is circling the other? We perceive the relationship between the two dots (i.e. which is stationary, and which as ‘orbiting’) by referring their motion to an external reference frame — either the screen or the moving background texture. The influence of background motion on the appearance of the dots strongly supports the Gestalt view of perception — that wholes take precedence over parts, and the appearance of parts depends on the wholes they are seen to comprise.

Gestalt Psychology has a long history at The New School; the first University in Exile faculty included Max Wertheimer, considered the father of Gestalt psychology, and Rudolph Arnheim. More recently, working outside the Gestalt tradition, Arien Mack, Alfred J. and Monette C Marrow Professor of Psychology, has advanced the study of perception with her research on inattentional blindness.

Van Buren’s path to NSSR began with an interest in visual aesthetic experiences. “In high school, I was always doing art-related stuff; making animations, wood carvings, and kinetic sculptures after Jean Tinguely. Then I got to college and the whole universe opened up before me,” he recalls. At the University of Pennsylvania, he followed a program in cognitive science and started working with Anjan Chatterjee on projects in neuroscience and aesthetics. “I wanted to see if it was possible to use a relatively ‘hard’ scientific approach to better understand things that seem more ineffable, like art experiences,” he says. This led him to a string of projects exploring the cognitive demands of viewing photographs of beautiful and ugly landscapes, how attention is deployed to attractive faces, and how artists’ painting styles change as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recently, Van Buren has also been probing the perception of intentions. Strictly speaking, when we see somebody reach out to hold our hand, or run to catch a train, the sensory data contain nothing more than physical states and changes. But in both of these cases, we experience the action in more than merely physical terms — we see it as performed by an agent with a mind, who has beliefs and goals. As a case study, his research has focused on another strong and storied illusion, in which we reflexively see simple geometric shapes (which we know to be inanimate) as alive and goal-directed when they move in particular ways.

In the same way that we can’t help but experience other visual illusions, we can’t help but see the shapes in the above Heider and Simmel film as animate, and telling some kind of story

Van Buren explains that seeing the world in this rich way is adaptive, driven by evolutionary pressures and the demands of development. Successful interaction with the world requires seeing it in all sorts of ways that go beyond the input data. “You can conceive of perception as solving a number of different problems. And we need not always think of perception as one process; it can be understood a variety or processes that are tacked together as solutions to problems that are posed by the environment,” Van Buren says.

For the past several years, Van Buren has been investigating perception’s curious “solutions” at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate, and at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he conducted postdoctoral research. His projects have explored everything from the perception of food’s caloric content to visitors’ aesthetic experiences in art galleries. Most recently, he has been interested in the question of how and when a still photo — which, strictly speaking, corresponds to a single moment of time — is seen to represent a longer stretch of time (from a few seconds to hours).

A New York native, Van Buren is looking forward to joining the New School and leading his own laboratory, the NSSR Perception Lab. He envisions the lab as “a space where people feel encouraged to break new intellectual and methodological ground, and where they learn from one another by sharing and debating ideas.” He is also excited about potential interdisciplinary collaborations with Parsons faculty and students. “Designers spend much of their time thinking about how we see the world in order to improve our experience of our surroundings. A lot of this knowledge would be interesting to vision scientists, but communication between these fields has been fairly rare. Fortunately, The New School is known for collaborations across disciplinary boundaries and for a widespread willingness to explore new avenues of research,” he says, citing the example of Professor of Psychology Michael Schober, who conducts research on jazz musicians as they improvise. “This work moves beyond all the existing paradigms in psychology in order to answer profound questions about how people read each other’s signals and create together.”

In Fall 2019, Van Buren will be teaching two classes. In “Visual Perception and Cognition,” NSSR graduate students will survey the latest vision science, including research on the perception of color, motion, shape, material, and depth. “I want to focus on big themes, and I plan to incorporate a lot of demonstrations.” he says. In “The Psychology of Aesthetics and Design,” undergraduates will study existing literature on empirical aesthetics, design a research question, and test their hypotheses through rigorous experimentation. He hopes these projects will reflect students’ own design practices and concerns, and that through them they will also discover new ways in which empirical methods can be used to enhance creative work.

Closure, Transformation, and the Law: NSSR Welcomes Political Theorist Sandipto Dasgupta

Within contemporary political language, a constitution is generally considered a neutral document, one that sets forth fundamental ground rules for how persons and organizations should conduct themselves politically but stands outside of the push and pull of quotidian politics itself. It is also understood as a stable, almost timeless framework that exists outside of the many changes of ordinary political life. Think of the mechanisms for amending itself the US constitution sets out, these emphasize an aspiration to enduring currency. Therefore, most people tend to understand a constitution as both an unbiased arbitrational document and as something essential to moving about effectively in the world.

But Sandipto Dasgupta, the new Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, has a different perspective. A political theorist, he explores the historical relationship between political institutions, like constitutions, and political transformation, taking a broad look at the variable historical composition of political paradigms, from constitutionalism to postcolonialism. His findings challenge some of the most conventional beliefs we have about the connection between revolutionary upheaval and political institutions. As he demonstrates, constitutions are not always the neutral means of closure and containment, but are sometimes the very tools of genuine political transformation.

A Global Academic Journey

A native of Calcutta, Dasgupta began his career with tentative intention of become a lawyer. He graduated from the National Law School of India University, the country’s first such school, and worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of India. During his studies, Dasgupta discovered that he was especially curious about the theoretical underpinnings of the law — the historical and philosophical assumptions that were as fundamental to the legal curriculum as they were unexamined. “I wanted to look at the legal language more critically and from a distance,” Dasgupta said.

This interest led him on a global academic journey, first to Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in Political Science in 2014. “New York was very fundamental in shaping me as an intellectual subject,” he says. “I was there in very interesting political times [Occupy Wall Street], all these new journals, people talking to each other. I was a shaped as a scholar by these moments outside the classroom and the library, as much by anything that happened within them. It also helped me, I think, move beyond India, linking my questions up with those that resonated globally.”

Dasgupta also studied at NSSR as part of the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium, sitting in on Politics classes with Andrew Arato and Andreas Kalyvas, and a class on Hegel with Jay Bernstein, which he remembers as going late into the night and often continuing at a nearby bar.

Dasgupta then moved on to postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at the British Academy in London. “It says something about the postcolonial world that its best archive is actually in the British Library,” he jokes. He has spent the past three years back home in Delhi, teaching a range of course on political ideology and political economy at Ashoka University.

Excited to return to New York, Dasgupta views the NSSR Politics Department as the perfect fit for a scholar such as himself, one interested in “interrogating the foundations and the assumptions that are built into the discipline,” he says. “The kind of political theory I do is critical and political. It tries to make political theory speak to the political life of the present. I always felt that The New School is the perfect place for that kind of approach.” This summer, he’s busy planning for  “The Political Theory of Decolonialization,” the first course he’ll teach to NSSR graduate students.

The Role of Constitutions

He’s also been busy wrapping up his first book, Legalizing the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). In it, Dasgupta returns to the accepted idea that constitutions act like skeletons for polities, providing a rigid structure that firm up the basic functions of administration and jurisprudence alike. He claims that this view narrowly focuses on and generalizes from a specific period of constitutional writing, ignoring other roles constitutions might play, especially in bringing to life the political institutions of a state.

For example, we tend to look to and study the constitutions of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than the ones that were written in the 20th. In those earlier centuries, the story of constitutions “is the story of closure,” Dasgupta says. “There’s upheaval and revolution and it comes to an end with a constitution. Constitutions end revolutions.” In the 20th century, however, constitutions may do exactly the opposite: They transform, they kick off revolutions. For the newly decolonized states of the twentieth century, Dasgupta says that “the revolution was in the future. We have a constitution through which we can do the revolution, transforming the colonial subject into a postcolonial citizen.” In this second kind of constitution, the distinction between the time of revolution and the time of law is undone, and the two meld together. In other words, these post-colonial states challenge our received notions of constitutions as instruments of order and closure, instead exploring their possibilities and limitations as instruments of revolutionary transformation.

Dasgupta has also explored the history of institutionalizing postcolonial visions of freedom. “When you think about it, the 20th century is this great moment of freedom, or at least of an image of liberation,” Dasgupta says, citing the examples of postwar decolonization. “The question that interests me is, what happens right after? How do we move from an image of freedom to institutions that help us to build that world?”

In one of his articles, Dasgupta takes Gandhi as a vehicle for exploring that broad question of transition into independence. “This is the paradox: he is this enormously influential figure both within and outside India’s anti-colonial movement, and yet almost none of his visions of postcolonial India come to fruition.” In this sense, Gandhi embodies a tension that all postcolonial state leaders must deal with: What does independence look like, institutionally, if it isn’t a replica of the European state model?

In Dasgupta’s view, the first three decades after decolonization have witnessed a shift from idealistic potential to a gradual disappointment. This perspective leads him to yet another question: how to construct an account of decolonization that is alive to both its expansive aspirations of emancipation as well as the eventual exhaustion of hope. Gandhi can be seen as case study in what happens when the vision fails to find a way to implement itself, when the anticolonial spirit fails to translate itself into a postcolonial one.

These sorts of issues, along with other recurring questions that newly independent states and leaders grapple with, will be explored in Dasgupta’s Fall 2019 course. “I’m am really looking forward to being at The New School, being back in New York,” he said. “What I look forward to about these graduate seminar is the opportunity to explore interesting questions together with the students. From the conversations I had with my colleagues and some of the students already, I believe that it will be an exciting journey!” he says.

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.