Memory Studies Group Looks to the Past to Build the Future

After a three year hiatus, the Memory Studies Group at The New School for Social Research regrouped and reemerged in March 2020. Less than a week after their first event, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world — and halted many of their plans.

Now, just over a year later, the revived group will hold their first conference this April: “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Research Matters spoke about with group members and leaders about the group’s history, its current projects, and its future.  

The History of the Memory Studies Group

“The idea for the Memory Studies Group came up…in Krakow, Poland, during  the Democracy & Diversity Summer Institute in 2007,” recounts faculty advisor Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS), which conducts the annual summer study intensive. She had just taught her first class in collective memory. As her students walked through Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, they noticed a pattern: “…beautifully renovated buildings, various institutions, cafes, restaurants, and the streets were all named for its Jewish past. The only thing missing was the Jewish people, who had been taken to the Nazi concentration camps, and murdered there. It became visible to us then, this uncanny presence of absence.”

This experience sparked an interest in memory among Institute students, who became the founding cohort of an independent Memory Studies Group: Amy Sodaro, Sociology PhD 2011; Lindsey Freeman, Sociology & Historical Studies PhD 2013; Yifat Gutman, Sociology PhD 2012; Alin Coman, Psychology PhD 2010, and Adam Brown, Psychology PhD 2008 and now Associate Professor of Psychology at NSSR. They organized a conference in the group’s first year, where scholars discussed questions like “Which past is official? What is it that we remember? How do we forget when we are not allowed to remember? How do groups remember their history when their memory is being repressed, and what is happening to people whose very existence is repressed from memory?” 

When Malkhaz Toria, group coordinator and a Sociology MA student, came to NSSR as a Fulbright scholar in 2011, the Memory Studies Group became an intellectual home for him. “That inspired me to establish a similar sort of group at my home university, Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia,” he says; he also heads that university’s Memory Center.

Upon his return to NSSR in 2019, Toria was instrumental in reviving the group, which had gone on a brief hiatus. Now part of TCDS, the group has new core members of Franzi König-Paratore, Sociology PhD student; Elisabeta “Lala” Pop, Politics PhD student; Malgorzata Bakalarz Duverger, sociologist, art historian, and Sociology PhD 2017; Chang Liu, Sociology MA student; and Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical studies PhD student.

“Our goal is also to have some continuity of the transnational and transdisciplinary projects and exchange that Sodaro and Freeman envisioned and implemented when they were steering the group,” König-Paratore says. “My hope is that the group continues to connect past and present members. I personally hope that we open up the group more for professionals or cultural workers outside of academia.”

The revived group’s first and only in-person event was a March 2020 book launch for Museums and Sites of Persuasion, which was edited Sodaro and Joyce Apsel, and includes work by Alexandra Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at the School of Public Engagement, Toria, and many others. Since then, the group has held several online lectures and webinars and on discourses within the field, from a look at revisionist narratives in Russia to an examination of how Frida Wunderlich — the first female economist at NSSR and a founding member of the University in Exile — is remembered.

Memory Studies: A Transdisciplinary Field

Memory Studies spans disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities to explore the ways collective memory is constructed, experienced, repressed, and rebuilt. “The complex field of memory studies employs whole repertoire of approaches from different disciplines including  comparative literature, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and politics, among other areas, to address the multifaceted phenomena of both individual and collective memories ,” Toria says. Matynia describes the field as “transdisciplinary.”

For example, Silvana Alvarez Basto, Liberal Studies MA student, looks at the intersections between politicization of art, history, and visual representations of memory in her home country of Colombia. “The topic of memory is very popular right now, since in 2016 the government ended an armed conflict with the FARC,” she says. Her research focuses on the construction of Simón Bolívar’s image as a national symbol across Latin America, in groups like the FARC and beyond. “I’m interested in how his face has become a guiding locus or a symbol for these movements,” Alvarez Basto explains. While her work has primarily dealt with 19th century portraits of  Bolívar, she has recently begun looking at the ways “new technologies modify our relationship with canonical images and with the Western tradition of painted portraits.”

Toria works on the role of memory construction in authoritarian regimes and their aftermaths. Collective memory, he explains, does not come into existence organically. “It’s controlled and dependent on political conjunctures…Across the globe, if you have a totalitarian government, they are more keen to control how you remember.” His research looks at citizens in countries that were part of the Soviet Union. “Ukrainians, Georgians, and Estonians have different pictures of the past and past relationships with Russia. That’s why these clashes in questions of the past happen; it is quite a universal mechanism.”

“My first encounter with the Memory Studies Group at the New School was in 2009 when I was pursuing an MA degree. Through the [group] and TCDS I became connected with the interdisciplinary research and networks of the field and it greatly influenced my own MA thesis work,” Pop explains. “Now [that] I’m back at NSSR, I’m excited to be part of the team of graduate students continuing the group’s work and re-launching its activities.”

Memory Studies Today

Memory Studies takes on particular relevance in periods of upheaval, when democracies come into existence or are threatened, when social movements gain power, or when societies experience unprecedented change — periods like today.

Matynia points to several factors that make the current moment crucial for the field. Many countries have experienced what Matynia calls “de-democratization,” under the influence of dictators and “would-be dictators” who weaponize collective memory. “Politics of history and politics of memory became a part of the playbook of many dictators and aspiring dictators,” she explains.

Additionally, social movements have begun exposing and dismantling parts of the past that had been manipulated or repressed out of collective memory. Think of activists taking down statues of Confederate leaders in the U.S, slaveholders in the U.K., and a conquistador in Colombia. “There’s this rippling where people want to ask, ‘what does it mean to memorialize these figures?’” Alvarez Basto says.

Memory Studies doesn’t just look at the past; the field is equally interested in the ways that people form collective memory now in preparation for the future. The massive shift in March 2020 into lockdown and onto Zoom inspired the group’s April 21 conference, “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Speakers will include Marci Shore, Associate Professor of History at Yale University; Hana Cervinkova, Professor of Anthropology at Maynooth University; and Juliet Golden, Director of the Central Europe Center at Syracuse University.

Toria explains, “There’s a kind of eternal presence that feels never-ending. Our world is reduced to these small screens, where our lives are… We’ll cover multifaceted aspects of Memory Studies in this new light, the context of the pandemic, like problems of democracy, remembrance, the problem of forgetting, shifting senses of time and space, and new issues in memory discourse surrounding gender and race.”

“We call it memory studies, but so much of what we think we are rooted in and call our past actually projects into the future,” Matynia adds. “So which past will we download as we moveout of today’s situation, and draw upon as a springboard for reinventing our intellectual lives, spiritual lives, and social lives?”


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Student-Led Symposium Explores Psychology and the Pandemic

On December 4, near the end of a year defined by COVID-19, MA and PhD students from the Psychology department at The New School for Social Research gathered on Zoom to present their research on the global mental health landscape amidst the global pandemic. 

The symposium was organized by Julia Superka, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology, and Olivia Cadwell a PhD candidate in Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology. As members of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, both have been working on pandemic-related mental health issues for months. But they didn’t realize that so many of their peers were as well.

NSSR’s Psychology department is a collaborative space. “I have always thought of this department as a community who uses tools, theories, and methods from psychological science as a way to inform and respond to our most critical challenges,” says Adam Brown, director of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab and Associate Professor of Psychology. Students conducting research throughout the department’s 16 labs have opportunities to discuss their work and its implications for broad-scale problems. Amid a shift to remote learning, those interactions have changed. “The chats that happen before class and collaboration that sparks in the hallways are much harder to organically build,” Superka says. Brown approached Superka and Cadwell with the idea for a student-led symposium to bring those students together.

In November, Cadwell and Superka circulated flyers inviting Psychology students with research at any stage related to COVID-19 to present their work. They received 12 abstracts with extraordinary breadth, and then coordinated across different labs, countries, and time zones to make the virtual symposium a reality. Topics included “data about clinical symptom severity and possible predictive markers for developing psychopathology during the pandemic…different ways technology was impacting the therapeutic process and being developed to reach as many people having difficulty coping as possible,” and “the implications of COVID from a global lens, including international research specifically in Turkey, India and China,” Superka recounts.

Research in Action at The Safran Center

Brown opened the virtual space by celebrating the adaptability of the students, so many of whom made changes in their research to address the urgent mental health needs the pandemic caused or exacerbated.

“One of the most remarkable things about being at NSSR is being surrounded by peers who have pivoted and adapted their research so quickly to this crisis,” Superka echoed in her opening remarks.

Olivia Cadwell, Safran Center for Psychological Services director Richelle Allen, and Julia Superka discuss overlaps across different research projects.

While national studies have looked at the impact of the pandemic on mental health generally, they have not closely analyzed symptoms for people already receiving treatment when the stay-at-home order began. The first project, presented by Clinical Psychology PhD student Hally Wolhander from the Psychotherapy work group from Safran Center for Psychological Services (directed by Richelle Allen, Assistant Professor of Psychology), focused on this often-overlooked demographic and measured patients’ symptom-severity during the pandemic. The group’s research showed that Safran Center patients with strong therapeutic alliance — the cooperative, working relationship — with their providers seemed to remain on track for reducing the severity of their mental health symptoms. Wolhander added that the group was still curious about the impact of teletherapy (versus in-person therapy) itself.

The Safran Center gave students the opportunity to observe the effects of COVID-19 and teletherapy on mental health services.

A group led by Psychology MA student Leslie O’Brien took up that very question in their presentation on “The Effect of the Transition to Teletherapy on Therapeutic Alliance during COVID-19.” O’Brien began, “Previous literature has indicated that psychologists have raised concerns about the impact of virtual conferencing on the psychotherapy process and therapeutic alliance.” To this group’s surprise, the patients and therapists they surveyed developed a high degree of therapeutic alliance, equal to previous years. The Center did increase the number of appointments patients receive in response to the pandemic, so the research might imply that the additional appointments had some success in preventing symptom deterioration–additional research could show whether that’s the case.

Another Safran Center work group focused on how the shift to teletherapy affected PhD students completing their training at the Center. Many student therapists initially opposed the switch to telehealth, Wolhander explained, because they were concerned that they would receive less broadly applicable training. But by June, students largely reported a neutral or positive experience, and most reported that they felt they had developed new skills.

The Psychological Life of the Pandemic

NSSR’s Psychology labs have also turned their attention to the relationship between mental states, emotions, and navigating these famously unprecedented times.

Clinical Psychology PhD student Emily Weiss from the Psychopathology Lab (directed by McWelling Todman, Professor of Clinical Practice) presented on the implications of a familiar emotional state during the pandemic — boredom. Different people, she explained, have different propensities toward boredom generally. But people who have felt increased boredom since stay-at-home orders began don’t necessarily have a higher boredom propensity. The differences, while subtle, could have a significant impact on distress. While boredom proneness and state boredom both are associated with higher rates of depression, for example, people with lower boredom proneness and higher state-boredom seem to have higher rates of hope and optimism for the future. Likewise, higher boredom-proneness is associated with higher COVID-19 infection, but not higher concern about the virus.

Heleen E. Raes, an MA student, presented research, also housed in the Psychopathology Lab, on the impact of pandemic boredom on substance use, hypothesizing that people more susceptible to boredom may be more likely to use alcohol and drugs.

MA student Ali Revill’s group within the Safran Center found that extraverted patients and patients with lower emotional dysregulation — inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses — have experienced higher mental illness symptom severity.

A group based in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab developed a self-efficacy app and presented their findings.

MA student Olivia Friedman presented on an app designed in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab to build self-efficacy, a critical tool in a moment where feelings of helplessness run rampant, and Cadwell presented research on the influx of politically-fueled COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Superka presented on behalf of her research group of NSSR and Suffolk University students, which looked at the risk of moral injury — an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression — for people navigating social distancing and other transmission-related guidelines. Actions that feel like moral failures, like forgetting to wear a mask, can lead to feelings of moral injury, which has long-term negative mental health outcomes. “The pain experienced by individuals who suffer from moral injuries confronts us with the fact that we are, at the core, empathic and moral beings, for whom living in a just world may be just important as living in a safe world,” Superka concluded.

International Research

NSSR Psychology students come from dozens of countries around the world, and many have taken an international approach to their research. Cognitive, Social, and Development Psychology PhD student Meymuna Topcu, presenting research conducted within the Cognitive Psychology Lab (directed by William Hirst, Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology), compared perceptions and projections of COVID-19 between the United States and China, including individuals’ perceptions of personal and governmental efficacy, and their estimated death and infection numbers.

Busra Yaman researched stress and resilience among Turkish and American graduate students during the pandemic.

MA student Busra Yaman, from the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, focused on “Perceived Stress, Achievement Motivation, and Resilience Among Domestic and International Graduate Students,” comparing Turkish international students to American students. While she found no significant differences in stress levels between the groups, she did find that international students did not lose motivation despite their high stress levels, while domestic students did. Likewise, international students with higher motivation had higher levels of resilience, while domestic students did not.

A group within the Center for Attachment Research looked at loneliness and mental health among women in rural India.

MA student Zishan Jiwani turned the symposium’s attention to India, which has had the second highest COVID-19 infection rates and an extremely strict lockdown. Little research has looked at the virus and lockdowns’ impacts on rural parts of the country. Jiwani presented on behalf of a group within the Center for Attachment Research (co-directed by Howard Steele, Professor and Co-Chair of Psychology and Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology), on “Understanding the Mental Health Impact of Fear of the Coronavirus amongst Low-Income Women in Rural India,” where women have been cut off from their communal spaces. The group analyzed data from surveys given to women in their homes in the Bahraich District in Northeast India, asking questions about fear of the virus and perceived loneliness. Research found that increased loneliness, increased fear, and increased mental health challenges are all highly associated with each other. Jiwani suggested that these results could influence public health decisions — the epidemic of loneliness requires care and attention, too.

Fostering a Collaborative Space

Around 50 people attended the event, including faculty and students from across the psychology department and throughout the university. By the time presentations came to a close, the collaborative spirit that characterizes NSSR was palpable — students with overlapping research swapped information in the chat, and some of the presenters had already begun answering questions before the formal Q&A began.

The Q&A included many suggestions for furthering research, like including job-loss data in boredom analysis. Adam Brown also proposed a question about the surprising results of the research on telehealth and therapeutic alliance, and Howard Steele sparked a conversation about therapeutic alliance and cultural crises.

Cadwell and Superka hope to recreate this digital community space in the form of future symposiums that highlight ongoing research from within the Psychology department and beyond.

“We saw this [symposium] as a great opportunity for people to come together and talk about the research that we’re doing. It’s really incredible how much everyone has adapted. There is other research being done throughout NSSR broadly…so we are really interested in organizing a recap symposium of the ongoing crisis points we experienced in 2020, including the economy, protests and police brutality, the election cycle, and other global catastrophes,” Cadwell says.

“After we moved to remote learning, I was proud to see how quickly our students stepped up and adapted their research to study the complex psychological impacts of COVID-19. The symposium underscored the breadth of research being carried out across our labs and the sophistication in which our students are doing this work,” Adam Brown reflects. “This end-of the-semester student-led event was a wonderful opportunity for them to share their cutting-edge findings with one another and to create that much needed sense of community that we all miss.”   


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

“Power and the Politics of Care” Panel, the ISPPO’s first event, took place on November 13, 2020 with panelists Monica Atkins, Christopher Paul Harris, and Miriam Ticktin.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.

Review: First Lecture Series from Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities

In Fall 2020, NSSR welcomed a new interdisciplinary institute: The Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH), led by Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy; Paul Kottman, Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of Liberal Studies; and Markus Gabriel, chair of epistemology and modern and contemporary philosophy and director of the International Centre for Philosophy at the University of Bonn. IPNH aims to extend humanistic inquiry in new directions to foster work that critically engages the current moment. Read more about INPH here.

In late October, IPNH hosted its first lecture series focused on artificial intelligence. Robert Mass, an NSSR Philosophy PhD student, reviews the series below.

In 2008, I took my children to see WALL-E, a Pixar movie that takes place amid an environmental and human apocalypse. In WALL-E, humans have been essentially made redundant; they live their lives reclining, staring into computer screens, all their basic needs satisfied by technology supplied by the State. 

Over the past 12 years, technology has done amazing things. It has revealed the secrets of the genome, allowing scientists to develop astounding biotech solutions to disease, and brought the world’s accumulated knowledge within reach via mobile phone. However, it has also brought the world of WALL-E closer to reality. We spend more times staring at our screens than interacting with other people, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, technology has now enabled governments and Big Tech to reach deep into our lives to both record and reshape our acts, our words and potentially even our thoughts. We are more dependent on technology, and more subject to manipulation and monitoring. 

These concerns drew me to Artificial Intelligence and the Human, the inaugural discussion series from the new Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH) at The New School for Social Research. For four hours each day from October 19-23, I joined an international group of students and scholars from various disciplines trying to work through the issues that technology poses for living a fulfilling human life.

The broad program included many topics, from the history of automata and computing, to the extent to which computers are able to mimic various forms of human thinking, to whether computers can be called ‘creative,’ to what kind of regulatory framework we might want to set up to limit some of the excesses of super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI 2.0). Speakers included Jens Schröter (University of Bonn) on machine creativity, Nell Watson (QuantaCorp) on AI and social trust, Brian Cantwell Smith (University of Toronto) on AI and the human, and Jessica Riskin (Stanford University) on the influence of machines on our conception of mind. Watch the talks here.

For me, the two most powerful sessions focused not so much on the future of AI, but on the future of human beings in the face of improving AI. 

In one session, Stuart Russell (University of California, Berkeley), argued that to understand AI, we need to realize that it deliberates only about means and not ends, which must be programmed into it by humans. AI optimizes results based on whatever those ends are; thus, the key to AI being beneficial to humanity is ensuring that its objectives are appropriately specified. Research to date has failed to properly theorize about how to do that and as a result, too often AI optimizes for an outcome that is detrimental. Russell argued that we need to develop new approaches to how best to specify beneficial goals, taking into consideration human preferences, e.g., recognizing the difficulties of identifying human preferences and then capturing them computationally, the uncertainty and plasticity of our desires, our weaknesses in identifying those preferences that are beneficial to us, the difficulties of interpersonal comparison of preferences, and the like. He believes that with appropriate focus, super-intelligent AI that benefits humanity can be developed.

After setting before us this fundamentally optimistic picture of what we need to do to guide the development of AI in the future, he left us with two problems.  The first he labelled the Dr. Evil problem — namely that evil actors, both private and state, can cause tremendous havoc in human life.  The second was my great fear, which he, too, called the WALL-E problem — that the overuse of AI will produces human enfeeblement. He had no vaccine for that, either. 

As frightening as that vision of the future is, a more dystopian one was presented by Susan Schneider (Florida Atlantic University). She discussed trans-humanism,  a philosophy that advocates improving the human condition through “mind design” — the implantation of chips in the brain or uploading or merging of mental functions into the cloud to improve mood, attentiveness, memory, musical skill, or calculation abilities.  

While generally positive about these possibilities,  Schneider discussed the philosophical challenges those types of brain augmentations pose.  At some point, augmentation may become so complete that self-consciousness — our felt quality of having inner experience — would be compromised or disappear altogether, and what we have heretofore thought of as distinctive to the human “mind” would no longer exist.  The changes wrote by brain augmentation could also be so great that we could no longer call ourselves the same person we were before the augmentation.  If either of these stages of mind design are reached, humanity as we have known it for millennia will no longer exist, as we will have merged into super-intelligent machines.

The growth of AI is changing our conceptions of human mindedness as well as human flourishing.  The program demonstrated the value the humanities can bring to understanding and perhaps guiding those changes for the better. In that regard, the program amply met the goal of IPNH to demonstrate the continued relevance of humanities in the academy and beyond.

It was quite a week, and I am looking forward to the IPNH Fall 2021 program on Objectivity in the Humanities.


Robert Mass is a Philosophy PhD student at The New School for Social Research

The Art of Researching Food

Three Projects from NSSR Alumni About What and How We Eat

Food is at the center of human life. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and why has evolved from matters of basic essential survival function to ritual, culture, and identity.  Research Matters sat down with NSSR alumni from Anthropology, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, and Politics whose work collides with the study of food.

The Food of a Diaspora 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, Isobel Chiang (MA Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism ‘20), received a grant from the India China Institute to conduct ethnographic field work within the Chinese diaspora community in Kolkata, India. Specifically, she set out to explore the phenomenon of Indian-Chinese food. 

“I wanted to know how Cantonese and Hakka cuisines have been retained, modified, understood, and misunderstood in India today,” Chiang says. “I have a background in sociology, so I knew going in that when you study the food of a diaspora, what you’re really studying is the culture of a diaspora, the politics of a diaspora, you’re studying boundaries, the way we hold onto identity or ideologies or religious convictions when we move away from home, the way we forget.”

In addition to visiting Chinese restaurants and food markets, and of course, eating, Chiang also conducted oral histories with Indian-Chinese residents.

“I didn’t want to simply ‘parachute’ into Kolkata and start researching. I wanted to get to know the residents there, fold myself into their lives. Luckily for me, they were so gracious and welcoming. I ate an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of dumplings. I talked with business owners and chai sellers. I was invited into peoples homes to cook with them and share meals. I went to universities in Kolkata to interview young Indian students about their conceptions of Indian-Chinese food. I even found myself at the birthday party of one of Bengal’s most famous soccer players,” Chiang says.

This project has personal implications for Chiang. Her father was born in Kolkata, but during the Indo-China War of 1962, he and his family moved to Toronto, Canada. Chiang is one of the few members of her family who have been back to India since.

“My father remains unsentimental and indifferent toward India,” Chiang describes. “The only thing that connects him to the place he’s from, the only time he allows his children to peek behind the curtain of his past life, is when he cooks fried rice. This sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Thus, food has always been my entry point to India. In many ways, going to India was my attempt at dealing intellectually with my father, with his heritage, and therefore my heritage.”

Chiang crafted these experiences and research into a piece of long-form journalism that she workshopped in a Master’s writing workshop during the Spring 2020 semester, and hopes to eventually publish it one day.

“The New School grant wasn’t just helpful for making this trip possible, it made this trip possible,” Chiang said. “Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct independent research abroad. Very few publications have the money these days to send journalists abroad to cover stories like this, so it would have been a difficult story to pitch to a magazine and get funded.”

The Future of Meat

When Jan Dutkiewicz (PhD Politics ’18) began graduate work in Politics at NSSR, he thought he might want to study the $200+ billion U.S. animal production industry. He looked for academic literature on the topic but found very little, especially in political science. So he set out to create it.

“It seemed like a really good opportunity to bring the tools of political economic inquiry — the intersection of economic activity with politics and social effects…to this [industry] that’s completely hidden in plain sight,” Dutkiewicz says. He worked within Politics as well as with faculty from several different disciplines, including Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History and co-founder of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which helped support his research. “The New School is really unique in that…there’s a real openness to disciplinarily risky research,” Dutkiewicz remembers.

His dissertation, Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal, traced how the U.S. meat industry seeks to produce a commodity that best suits changing market conditions. He is currently turning that dissertation into his first book, which he places at the intersection of political economy, economic sociology, and economic anthropology.

After graduating from NSSR, Dutkiewicz was the Connie Caplan Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. There, he started asking questions around normative ethics and bioethics in the animal production industry, especially around new food products. In particular, Dutkiewicz began to dig deeply into plant-based meat alternatives and the potential of cellular agriculture — the production of animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves, also known as lab-grown or cultivated meat — to transform the global food landscape. In addition to his peer-reviewed publications, Dutkiewicz now writes and speaks extensively on the meat and alternative protein industries for media outlets ranging from The Guardian and Jacobin to Forbes and Business Insider. “Bringing this research to the public is a really important and valuable part of my work,” he says.

In his 10+ years studying the topic, Dutkiewicz has witnessed an enormous growth in public awareness, concern, and debate over the effects of animal production and consumption on anthropogenic climate change. He believes that recent advances in the alternative protein industry will make it easier for more people to decrease their meat consumption

“What cellular agriculture will do is that it minimizes switching costs. It’s saying, we’re not asking you to actually change what you like eating, what your tastes are, what your culinary and dietary habits are. We’re just asking you to switch between products that are ultimately very similar. From a social impact perspective, you can’t underestimate the power in our society of providing people with more consumer options and technologically developing superior products,” Dutkiewicz says, citing empirical evidence from the fast-food industry showing the popularity of alternative meats among people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians 

Dutkiewicz will continue his work this fall as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Mushrooms as Ethnography

Peggy Tierno (MA Anthropology ’20) loves mushrooms. Sporting a pair of tiny dangling red mushroom earrings, she explains how a paper on the kinship of fungi for her Anthropology Master’s program evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative journal.

“The paper explores multi-species and multi-sensory ways relating and building community and kinship relationships with other species,” Tierno says.

Her infatuation with mushrooms started when one grew miraculously among her spruce saplings. This led her down a path to research the species’ other incredible natural interactions.

“When you’re thinking about food, for a lot of people, food might be the only way they are interacting daily with the natural world,” Tierno shares. “So I’m thinking about our relationship to food, thinking about how mushrooms relate with their environment, and thinking about those reciprocal caretaking relationships.”

Because of her passion for the subject, Tierno decided to expand and evolve the life of her work beyond a paper. “I was thinking on how I could turn it into a collaborative project, with  submissions of poetry, personal writing and artwork alongside research on mycelium and mushrooms,” she says.

While taking a class on design and publishing and using the resources at the Making Center at Parsons School of Design, Tierno created a prototype for her journal. Now, she hopes to establish a journal of diverse multimedia work that is created collaboratively, and that has the potential to eventually develop into a larger project around community and food.

“Food is something very intimate, it’s very important to my personal life and my personal relationships, and how I connect with people. I love to cook for people. I love to be cooked for,” Tierno says. “Another thing I am thinking about with this project is how to do DIY cultivation or communal cultivation of mushrooms that people can have access to, expanding the collaboration of relating with mushrooms.”

Anyone interested in contributing can email her at peggy.tierno@gmail.com  


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz