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.

Rewarding Courage in Public Scholarship

Mention Jan Gross and his 2001 book, Neighbors, and the word ‘controversy’ will soon follow.

The book, which documents the murders of nearly the entire Jewish population of the town of Jedwabne, Poland during World War II, explicitly challenges a long-accepted narrative that denies Polish complicity in the fate of Jewish Poles during the war. Since its publication, the book has provoked virulent responses from all sides: academic, political, media, popular. It has inspired renewed investigations and broad, heated conversations about the very heart of Polish identity. And it has made Gross — a former imprisoned student dissident who fled Poland in 1969 — again an unwelcome figure in his home country as he continues to publish research on anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in Poland during and after World War II.  

That commitment to disseminating knowledge in the face of dangerous opposition has earned him the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award from the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at The New School for Social Research (NSSR).

At a ceremony on March 7, 2019, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies Elzbieta Matynia and former NSSR Dean Ira Katznelson will honor Gross and welcome him into a growing family of courageous award recipients.

In a Public Seminar article, Matynia recalls the genesis of the Courage in Public Scholarship Award, when a global group of alumni from TCDS’s annual summer Democracy and Diversity Institutes gathered in 2014 amid a “an ethical and intellectual crisis facing academics in Europe and beyond”:

“Drawing on the ethos of the University in Exile, and their own New School experience, and the conviction that especially in dark times universities carry a special responsibility vis-à-vis society, they considered in two intensive working sessions both the mounting problems and possible ways to address them…

“The outcome of the debate was distilled in their final statement, known as the Wroclaw Declaration, which calls into being the ‘NSSR-Europe’ initiative, an intellectually engaged microcosm of The New School for Social Research within the new post-cold-war Europe.”

In that Declaration, members determined that they would engage in “recognizing and honoring courage in public scholarship through awards and fellowships.” Acting quickly, they presented the first Courage in Public Scholarship Award on June 9, 2015 to Ann Barr Snitow, a “prominent American academic, writer, and activist committed to gender justice and equality, whose work in Central and Eastern Europe over a quarter of a century has helped to recast social discourse, reshape the culture, and empower women in this part of the world.” The ceremony was held at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, and was hosted by Minister for Equal Treatment Malgorzata Fuszara, a professor of law and sociology and friend of Matynia and of TCDS. In the years following, the Award was given to NSSR Professor Emerita and famed Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller and Professor Ewa Letowska, former Ombudsperson and judge on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.

Courage in Public Scholarship Award recipient Agnes Heller with Democracy and Diversity Institute faculty and students in 2016

The coming 2019 ceremony marks the first time the award will be given at NSSR, and is part of The New School’s Centennial celebrations. It’s a fitting moment for the award to come to New York; though it may be just four years old, the values it represents — a drive to bring scholarship to the general public, intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to challenging the status quo despite fierce opposition — build directly on the 100-year-old history and founding values of The New School itself.

“It’s a question of academic freedom and we stood for it. That’s how we [The New School] were initially in 1919, in 1933, and then in 1989,” Matynia says, referencing the school’s founding as a progressive institution where no faculty would be bound by loyalty oaths; the University in Exile, which rescued nearly 200 scholars fleeing from Nazism and fascism between 1933 and 1945; and the collapse of communism just 30 years ago — a period that a new era of The New School as well as Matynia’s own life and academic career.

Arriving as a postdoctoral fellow at The New School in 1981, Matynia expected to return to Warsaw the following year. But when Poland declared martial law, she ended up staying in the United States, teaching at several colleges before returning to The New School in the mid-1980s. In 1990, she became the director of the East and Central Europe Program, now TCDS, to help revitalize post-Communist scholarly life and create relationships between universities in the region and NSSR.

TCDS’s D&D Institutes began in Poland in 1992 to support scholars in East and Central Europe — Gross taught courses at the first and second institutes and returned in the early 2010s as a guest lecturer — and a sister D&D Institute also met in South Africa from 1999 to 2015 as that country grappled with its own democratic future.

Fittingly, Matynia’s research in political and cultural sociology addresses democratic transformations, especially in emerging countries with a legacy of violence. She, like many, hoped that 1989 would mark a clear transition to democracy for East and Central Europe. That hasn’t been the case; today, Matynia notes, many freedoms — of gender, of movement, of speech, of public gathering — are endangered in the region as well as in the United States.

“The whole concept of freedom is something which is difficult for increasingly right-wing regimes to tolerate,” says Matynia. “At this moment, there are so many threats to knowledge in general that I think it’s even more important than ever to make everyone aware of it. The principles of the way we live, of our democratic life, of society are threatened” as institutions that examine history and society are silenced or closed. As two recent alarming examples, Matynia cites the move of Central European University from Hungary to Austria after government pressure and the forced removal of the director of the Second World War Museum  in Gdansk, Poland for challenging accepeted Polish narratives of the war — much like Jan Gross.

As these outlets for critical thought disappear, suspicion, mistrust, and conspiracies spread even more quickly, making the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award that much more meaningful — and timely.


Inaugural Activist-in-Residence Shanelle Matthews Engages at The New School this Fall

Shanelle Matthews and Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly lectured in the Race in the US Course on October 2, 2017. View the video at livestream.com/thenewschool.

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Shanelle Matthews joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network in January 2016, having spent seven years in journalism and public interest communications. As the network’s Director of Communications, she crafts messages for the organization that she called, “a co-creator of the 21st-century Black Freedom Movement.”

In a recent conversation, Matthews talked about how her diverse training and experience as an organizer, researcher, journalist, and communicator for numerous political and non-profit organizations came together to equip her for the position. “I believed everything that I had done up until that point prepared me for this role,” Matthews said. “And then it became clear that no experience could really prepare you for a job like this.”

This fall, Matthews has also joined The New School as the university’s inaugural Activist-in-Residence, a pilot program jointly conceived by NSSR Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly and two members of The New School’s Board of Trustees, Fred Dust and Susan Foote. They worked to recruit Matthews to The New School.

“It feels important for me and for people who are committed to this position to close the gap between the movement and the academy,” Matthews said. She suggested that it represents an opportunity to align resources among academics and activists, build mutual trust, and facilitate innovative collaborations to produce social change.

According to Matthews, partnerships of this kind have the potential to break down barriers that can often separate scholarship from activism. “If we continue to work in siloes, it will take us much longer to make progress,” she said.

Just four weeks into her tenure as Activist-in-Residence, Matthews has big plans for her remaining time at The New School. She will deliver a lecture in the Race in the U.S. course alongside Professor Woodly. The class is a continuation of the “Post-Election America” series, and is Livestreamed on a weekly basis through The New School’s Facebook page. Matthews is contributing articles on race in America for Public Seminar and has made herself available to students across The New School for one-on-one discussions of activism and scholarship.

She will also continue to conduct research into the representation of under-represented voices in media. “I’m trying to deepen our understanding of how decision makers in media decide who to offer as experts,” she said. Matthews hypothesizes that to diversify the pool of individuals acting as experts would advance understanding. This dovetails with her work through Channel Black to provide training in improvisation, debate, and cognitive science to leaders in the movement, many of which identify as black, female, and LGBTQ. The goal is to share knowledge and communications best practices to empower a new generation of leaders to serve as experts and effective advocates in the media. “Increasing representation of black, LGBTQ, and female voices into the media will help us create more empathy and nuance, which we desperately need.” Matthews explained.

Having advocated on behalf of the black community, women, and LGBTQ individuals in several previous roles, Matthews was serving as Deputy Director of Communications at the Sierra Club—the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization—just before she joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Matthews talked candidly about her decision to join the Network staff. “I had to do a lot of personal digging to decide whether this was the right role for me, and whether I could serve the black community in the way that we needed,” she said. With nearly two years behind her, she adds, “I’ve had to learn how to be more tender and more gentle in a fast-paced environment that can feel lonely and hard to navigate.”

Matthews finds it is hard to pinpoint her most difficult month as Director of Communications for BLM, and instead pointed to the intellectual, professional, and emotional challenges of having to respond so frequently to acts of violence on behalf of a global organization that contains many perspectives. “When you become the person who’s responsible for concisely and accurately messaging for a network that shares the same name as a broad moniker, it can be unhinging,” she said. Speaking of a weeks-long stretch last year in which she was called upon to respond to events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, Matthews added, “You become, in some ways, slightly confused about what you believe versus what makes sense to message at that moment, and what’s true for most people. And you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The New School strikes Matthews as an institution with a responsibility to lead conversations about how activism and scholarship can advance social justice. “It’s very exciting to be here, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. Observing some of the structural imbalances of representation in higher education, she added, “For a university to have integrity on these issues means having more people of color as decision makers—in addition to diversifying students and faculty.” Matthews expressed that she is looking forward to working with colleagues at The New School “to offer perspectives on how to double down on the institution’s commitment to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.”

“Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices,” she added. “Through my work at The New School and beyond, I’m committed to making that a reality.”

The lecture delivered by Shanelle Matthews and Deva Woodly as part of the 2017 Race in the U.S. class, broadcast live on October 2, 2017, will be archived and available on The New School‘s Facebook page and at livestream.com/thenewschool.

Deva Woodly interviews Danielle Allen at the NSSR’s annual Hans Maeder lecture

Deva Woodly, assistant professor of politics at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) recently sat down with Danielle Allen, a professor in Government Department and Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, to discuss notions of liberty and equality in the contemporary American political landscape.

Allen, a political philosopher renowned for her ability to connect us to complex ideas about democracy, citizenship, and justice, came to the New School for Social Research in March 2016 to deliver its annual Hans Maeder lecture, with the proposal that “this talk helps us recover our understanding of the relationship between liberty and equality so that we can reclaim the power latent in their connection. In showing the links between liberty and equality, the talk touches on political, social, and economic aspects of equality.” Allen is the author of four books: The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and, most recently, Our Declaration (2014).


For more details about Deva Woodly’s publications, read the Research Matters profile and see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf below.

Bill Hirst Presents Inaugural Lecture as Newly Appointed Malcolm B. Smith Professor

Bill Hirst, recently appointed Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, delivered the NSSR general seminar in November 2015 on his research on collective memory. Hirst is a prominent scholar of memory, and in recent years, his research has focused on how people remember public events, how social interactions shape these memories, and how communities come to share memories. Hirst has been at the forefront of the effort to find a place for psychology in discussions of collective memory, and to underscore the relationship between memory and the ways in which societies address past grievances and actions.

Earlier this year, Hirst received an honorary doctorate from the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, for his contribution as one of the world leaders in the field of collective memory and social remembering, and for being the first cognitive psychologist to study the social aspects of memory.

Listen to Hirst’s general seminar lecture below.

Bio | Hirst received his PhD from Cornell University. Hirst has published over 140 scholarly articles and edited four books and four special journal issues. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, he was author or co-author on 46 articles; this included articles in Psychological Science, the most influential journal in psychology, The Journal of Trauma and Stress, Social Cognition, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. He recently published A Ten-Year Follow-Up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories for Flashbulb Events” (Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2015) andSocial Identity and Socially Shared Retrieval-Induced Forgetting: The Effects of Group Membership” (Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2015). Additionally, his work on memory of 9/11 was featured in Time Magazine.

Choose a publication below to learn more.