Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer

“To see the real city you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places; the adventure will take you underground, in sex venues, crackhouses, teenage hangouts, toxico-maniac dens, as these physical spaces juxtapose the romantic reality of a multi-ethnic metropolis.”

Terry Williams, introducing his Cosmopolitan Life Series

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in a February, a crowd gathered at the home-hosted Harlem Arts Salon to hear about the latest book from Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. As filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets, sociologists, and current and former graduate students entered the inviting apartment, Williams warmly greeted them by name, creating a sense of community and connection rare at academic book talks.

But this wasn’t a ‘regular’ book talk. For one, host and Harlem Arts Salon founder Margaret Porter has known Williams for decades. Both grew up in Mississippi, found their way to New York City, and moved to Harlem in 1979. Guest moderator Hakim Hasan, a poet and former Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, also cited a deeply personal relationship with Williams, whom he called “gracious, soulful, and dedicated.” 

And Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club (Columbia University Press, 2020) isn’t a ‘regular’ academic book, with obscure jargon and heavy prose. In it, Williams deftly weaves together ethnography, sociological sources, and storytelling to create a fascinating and accessible account of the cocaine culture at a Harlem club in the 1980s and 1990s — a book for, in his words, the “cosmopolitan nonspecialist.”

A Multiethnic Panorama

“I am insatiably curious about the life of other people,” says Williams. “Some would say I’m nosy.”

A keenly observant scholar, Williams has turned being “nosy” into a decades-long career studying urban life and policy. His preferred methodology is ethnography, embedding himself in different situations to observe how people interact with each other and their surroundings. “I try to see the world as other people see it,” he explains.

When Williams was a doctoral student at CUNY in the early 1970s, ethnography was not a part of a sociologist’s toolkit. Focusing on non-quantitative social science made him an outlier in his department, and he instead found mentors at the University of Chicago, well-known for its pioneering work in urban sociology and advocacy for ethnography as critical to sociological research. Ethnography has become such a staple of his work that he even co-wrote the book on it; On Ethnography (Wiley, 2018), with colleague Sarah Daynes, shares lessons learned from decades of research in the field.

Williams publishes prolifically, and Le Boogie Woogie is the latest book in what he terms his Cosmopolitan Life Series; previous subjects include con men, Harlem building superintendents, crackhouse residents, and teenagers who self-harm. The series is a multivolume ethnography of place and behavior, and while the topics are diverse, none are forced; all evolved organically from Williams’ established relationships and interests.

Inside the Club

That’s especially true in the case of Le Boogie Woogie. While Williams’ father had run a small after-hours club in Mississippi, Williams was never allowed to get too close to it — a fact that only attracted him more. Once in New York City, he became connected with Le Boogie Woogie and other clubs like it via former students he taught at Rikers Island correctional facility and later befriended. He became curious about the club’s patrons who shared a lifestyle based around the enjoyment of cocaine and, with a professor’s encouragement, he began to work out a plan for research.

“No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, “…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk.” He pressed forward. 

Granted access to the club by way of his connections, Williams began to attend regularly. When talking with patrons and workers, he listened closely, keeping mental notes so he could later reconstruct dialogue. “Only on a few occasions did I use a tape recorder or openly take notes. I relied on memory for the most part, even though I was concerned that reconstructing conversations was problematic and porous and would affect my narrative,” Williams writes. He later opened up to some patrons about his research, and they began to share their extended stories with him.

The result is a vivid narrative that brings the setting, the scene, and the many characters who populate Le Boogie Woogie to life — so much so that the reader begins to feel like a nightly regular. “What he unveils,” says a recent Kirkus review, “is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an ‘example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.’”

Not only did Williams have to reconstruct dialogue after the fact; he had to reconstruct the entire scene years later. By the time Le Boogie Woogie was published in 2020, the club had been closed for decades. At his publisher’s encouragement, Williams broadened his research to the current day by studying Murphy’s Club, an after-hours club on the Lower East Side frequently mainly by wealthy, white millennials. In doing so, Williams is able to draw important connections and contrasts over time around drug usage, buying, and consumption; nightlife; sex work; race; class; gentrification; the War on Drugs; and the transformation of New York City itself.

“From a methodological perspective, most urban ethnographers do not imagine themselves to be historians in the classical sense of the word,” writes Williams. “Yet there is an inherent and unavoidable historical framework to all ethnographic work.” Le Boogie Woogie is a journey through time, through space, through states of consciousness, and through discreet worlds, each with their own cultural practices and lexicons.

The Sole of the Matter

Williams with his latest project: shoe construction

While Williams continues to prepare new books for his Cosmopolitan Life Series, he’s sharing his research skills and gift for storytelling with NSSR students in his classes on ‘Ethnographic Field Methods’ and ‘The Living Book: From Research to Manuscript.’ 

He’s also collaborating with Catherine Murphy, Senior Research Associate at Parsons School of Design, on ‘The Social Life of Stuff,’ a course that examines the social world of objects, products, and people. Their guiding questions: “What discoveries do we make when we trace the life of the objects that surround us? How do we understand craft? What does the spirit of capital mean in present-day life and the act of making and re-making? What responsibility do we have in addressing the impact products have on the worlds we live in? As we think about examining unusual materials and items of the sacred what remains sacred today? Where does the moral compass stand as it connects to the Internet and places like Silicon Valley?”

That insatiable curiosity that’s led Williams across New York City and around the world of stuff has also led him to a new field: shoe construction. In between teaching and writing, he’s been studying the ins and outs of creating shoes, and currently has prototypes of five different models made from mink, pony, leather and raffia. Several are named after his books or his ethnographic subjects and evoke something about the topics in their design and construction. He hopes to begin selling his shoes in 2021, with profits going to support the Harlem Arts Salon’s Gloster Arts Project and Parsons School of Design students. For Williams, it always comes back to creativity, connections, and communities.

Revival Magazine Examines the State of the Left

Revival on 15th Street, a cheap bar with a patio, became a regular spot for the NSSR community to meet for a post-class drink near campus. One particular group of graduate students routinely went to Revival together every Friday night. They would talk about The New School, the chaos of graduate life, and the intricacies of leftist ideologies and movements happening in, around, and far from the university. These discussions soon became the inspiration to start their own magazine.

“The idea to establish Revival Magazine originated from the realization that The New School, and in particular NSSR, lacks accessible and student-led spaces where we can exchange ideas and arguments that are not academic in nature,” says founding co-editor and Economics MA student Ruben Brockbreder. “We wanted to create Revival to document these conversations, which, while most passionately delivered in the dim light of the bar and animated by Friday night spirits, would often dissipate within daily routine and university madness.” 

“All That’s Left”

The first issue of Revival launched in May of 2019, entitled “All That’s Left.”  “The quite gloomy title for Issue I describes our attempt to collect or survey the condition of leftist movements and parties around the world,” Brockbreder says.

The issue featured three sections: commentaries on the state of the left in seven different countries; research briefs spotlighting the work of MA and PhD students in NSSR’s Three-Minute Thesis Challenge; and art and essays on themes of labor, alienation, and a sense of belonging in and near the left. Submissions came from across NSSR, representing how social science students are grappling with today’s most pressing issues.

Ye Liu, a Sociology PhD candidate, wrote a commentary on China:

Amy Osika, a Historical Studies MA student, explored the use of satire by the New Left and the U.S. counterculture for social and political critique in 1960s.

P.J. Gorre, Philosophy PhD candidate and Coordinator of Academic Affairs at NSSR, shared advice from his mother amid difficult times.

Kalpa Rajapaksha, an Economics PhD student, presented photographs from “beyond the horizons of capital in New York City.”

Making a Magazine

But as Brockbreder tells Research Matters, an idea is far from enough to make a magazine materialize from scratch. The original team of five editors found funding for Revival through NSSR’s MA Project Grant, which provides support for initiatives launched by MA students that focus on learning, research, and community-building. 

“From the very beginning, we all agreed that we wanted to produce a physical rather digital product that we could ‘hold in our hands and pass around’. From getting submissions for essays and artwork, to editing and finally printing and binding, everything in setting up Revival, in fact, has been refreshingly physical,” Brockbreder says. They printed and bound the magazine by hand at Parsons Making Center, with a digital copy created as an archive. 

Isobel Chiang, a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student and Revival’s art director, has worked as a publishing fellow with the New Republic and as an assistant at both the Parsons School of Design and at a New York City design firm. She points to the Parson’s Graphic Design Lab and its technician, Joe Hirsch, as major resources for producing the physical magazine. She included her notes on design and layout in the arts section of Revival:

“Our goal when typesetting and laying out Revival was not to make a magazine that succumbs to stale associations of leftism (the color red, images of people protesting, stars, etc.),” she writes. “Our goal, instead, was to somehow carry over the spirit of the left into a print product.” The magazine uses only three colors on uncoated paper.

Publication design is an essential part of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) curriculum. All CPCJ MA students take Design and the Future of Publishing, a hands-on studio course investigating typography, book and pamphlet design, digital printing, content on the web, and ideation. They also examine contemporary issues that cross design and publishing through readings and analysis of contemporary books, magazines, and periodicals across both printed and digital platforms. Every spring, Parsons School of Design undergraduates join CPCJ students in multidisciplinary teams that work to create conceptual publishing projects — a truly New School-only experience.

Looking Left of The New School

Buoyed by student response and a second MA Project Grant, Revival’s editors are working on its second issue, “For our second issue, we now want to shift the focus from the global to the local to focus on the movements and debates organized by New School students and workers,” Brockbreder says. 

Submissions for the second issue should touch broadly on the relationship between leftist ideas and ‘liberal institutions,’ such as The New School, timely in the year of its centennial. Some topics suggested in the call for submissions include how the New School’s health insurance policy is affecting students, the meaning and symbolism of sanctuary schools, and labor organizing on campus and at other academic institutions. 

As the first issue told us, “We want to continue thinking beyond academia; coming from within but looking beyond. This is an attempt at reviving that tradition.”


If you would like to write for Revival, please email revivalmag@newschool.edu with a brief pitch of your idea; the essay does not have to be written at this point in time. If you have a complete essay, please submit that as an attachment with a brief summary of the essay in the body of your email. The submission deadline is December 15, 2019.

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.

“The One True Barbecue”

Historical Studies  Alumnus Rien Fertel talks with Research Matters about New Orleans, Creole cuisine, race, and his time at The New School for Social Research. 

Rien Fertel—now a historian, James Beard Award-nominated writer, and teacher based in Louisiana—arrived in New York City as a self-described Hurricane Katrina exile in 2005.

The storm had swept away his business—a small grocery store that he ran in New Orleans—as well as his home. Like many of the 1 million individuals displaced by the storm, Fertel wondered if he would ever make it back to his hometown.

“I spent nine months feeling lost, and emotionally affected by Katrina,” he said in an interview with Research Matters.

During that period, Fertel stayed in New York on the couches of his cousin and uncle, the latter of whom was teaching on a part-time basis at The New School. Already familiar with the reputation of The New School for Social Research, Fertel applied to the M.A. program in Anthropology in hopes of adding structure to his time in New York.

When he was accepted to The New School for Social Research, Fertel discovered that wires had somehow become crossed, and he had been offered a scholarship to attend the Historical Studies master’s program. Though he had the option to transfer into Anthropology, Fertel decided to stay in Historical Studies, and the error turned out to be fortuitous. It connected him with his advisor—Professor of History Oz Frankel—and set him on a course that would provide space for him to work through his intellectual and emotional relationship to post-Katrina New Orleans, while building a foundation for his future career.

“I grew up in my family’s restaurant in Lafayette, New Orleans,” Fertel explained. “And when I started at The New School for Social Research, I was worried about New Orleans and about its culture, which seemed threatened with disappearance.”

Frankel’s class introduced Fertel to historiographic methods, and motivated him to think about the centrality of food to the distinctively mixed cultural setting of New Orleans.

“In my thesis, I looked into foundational texts—cookbooks for the most part—that wrote Creole cuisine into national and global vernaculars,” Fertel said. Against the backdrop of questions about how cuisine solidified the culture of the Gulf, he took another class with Frankel on the history of books as objects. Fertel’s thesis evolved into what he described as, “a textual history of cuisine,” engaging at the same time with broader questions of mythmaking and the construction of race.

“Part of what was going on in New Orleans in the nineteenth century—specifically after Reconstruction—is that you have these first cookbooks that codify recipes,” Fertel said. What emerged in his research was a kind of racial and ethnic hierarchy that privileged French and French-derived recipes, alongside what Fertel called “melting pot” recipes that often included several elements of African and Caribbean traditions.

“The books gave credit to French chefs,” Fertel explained, “in part because they seemed invested in the representation of French ethnicity in New Orleans.” Stories of French chefs who masterminded hybrid recipes—at least, according to the mythology constructed by these texts—tend to obscure the influences of racially marginalized cultures whose influences were in fact central to the evolution of the region’s cuisine.

Despite the fact that he only took one history class as an undergraduate, by the time Fertel finished the Historical Studies program at The New School for Social Research, he had become a convert to the discipline. And despite his skepticism about the future of New Orleans, he ultimately decided to return to the city.

“It honestly felt like a really bad idea to go back,” he recalled. But he had applied to the Ph.D. program in History at Tulane University, and had been offered a fully funded offer.

“At The New School, I had taken classes about capital and about class dynamics, and about war on the poor. And I was writing about race,” he remembered, “I saw all of these things happening in New Orleans. And though I knew that I had seen them happening before, I definitely became more aware of them in grad school.”

When Fertel returned to New Orleans, he said that he realized the city already changed—and that would continue to change as Katrina receded into the past—for better and for worse. As a doctoral student, he developed a dissertation on white Creole literature in New Orleans. His work returned to questions about the creation of the city’s myths and racial identities in books—this time in novels, plays, and poetry.

Thanks to the advice of a mentor, Fertel also became involved with an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance, which connects academics and writers with individuals in the restaurant industry. Fertel said that the purpose of the organization is to recognize the people, places, and events in Southern culinary history that have been “ignored, suppressed, or erased.”

At the Southern Foodways Alliance, Fertel collected oral histories in Memphis about the history of barbecue—a regional cuisine with its own set of rich and complicated mythologies that resonated with his academic work. These oral histories quickly began to produce a full-on set of research questions about the traditions of barbecue in the South, occupying an increasing amount of Fertel’s attention.

“I had a deal with my advisor,” he joked, “Every time I turned in a dissertation chapter, I could go back on the road. I really loved talking with these people—going deeper, beyond asking, ‘how long do you cook this piece of meat and at what temperature.’”

The result is The One True Barbecue, which deals with the often behind-the-scenes labor at barbecue restaurants. Fertel focused on a practice called whole-hog barbecue, in which a pig is cooked slowly over the course of 24 hours. At the time of his research, the number of whole-hog restaurants was dwindling. Today, just a few years later, Fertel points to whole-hog’s resurgence, with restaurants opening even in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

“It has become a really hip food style for a lot of reasons,” Fertel said, adding that the book tries to understand the tradition of the process, and complicate the popular histories that often of barbecue’s origins.

“It’s about the myth-making that is placed front-and-center at a lot of these restaurants,” Fertel said. In the course of his research, he explained, “I talked to individuals who have worked in restaurants […] the people whose names are not on the front of the building. Their pictures don’t hang on the wall. A lot of them have been working there for 50 years—but customers don’t know their names.”

In many cases, the actual cooking has to take place in a structure that is physically separate from the restaurants themselves. As Fertel put it, the back-of-house employees that he talked to, who are often the individuals responsible for the recipes and high quality of the food, “were so outside the restaurant itself that a lot of these people were foreign to their own restaurant.”

Fertel traces the roots of his emphasis on under-acknowledged physical and cultural labor—similarly done by individuals from racially or ethnically minoritized communities— to The New School for Social Research.

In addition to his research and writing, Fertel teaches at the University of Mississippi, and has taught history at Bard Early College in New Orleans. At Bard, roughly 100 students attend public high schools each morning. According to the school’s website, students “spend the second half of every school day as undergraduates of Bard College, completing the first year of a Bard education during the last two years of high school.”

In his work at Bard, Fertel had the chance to teach archival research methods, taking his students to museums and archives, and challenging them to deliver research presentations—all in the city that he had worried he’d never come home to again.

“New Orleans has always been seen as exceptionally different from everywhere else, not just in the South but in the country,” he reflected, adding, “It looked different, it was built differently. The people talked different. We had a French background. We have an exceptional history. We invented jazz. We invented Creole cuisine.”

Fertel’s ongoing work—in his research, writing, and teaching—deconstructs many of the founding myths responsible for public conceptions about the cuisine and culture of his hometown. He credits The New School for Social Research for teaching him some of the skills that have made this work possible. But in talking to him, it is immediately evident that his efforts to tell under-acknowledged stories and to restore forgotten figures to narratives about southern culture, cuisine, and identity are motivated by a much deeper connection to the hometown that he loves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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