Daniel Rodriguez-Navas Tackles Foucault, Religion, and Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Kindness to Cruelty: Katrina Fincher on the Duality of Human Nature

While countless writers, artists, and academics explore a certain duality in human nature, they tend to focus on the manifestation and effects of that divided self. Assistant Professor of Psychology Katrina Fincher asks a different question. She wants to know exactly what makes that duality possible within a single individual.

Within clinical psychology, this question is largely uncharted territory. “With a few exceptions, researchers have not examined the mechanisms which enable the same person to shift, quite rapidly, between kindness and cruelty,” she said.

While Fincher’s particular research interests developed during graduate school, they actually took root much earlier. Fincher’s mother grew up in Argentina during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), during which she saw her best friend kidnapped, her aunt imprisoned, and her cousin murdered. Her mother eventually started a new life in the U.S., where Katrina grew up. But summers were spent back in Argentina.

“From May to August, I lived in the shadow of [the regime’s] atrocities. However, most of the year I escaped to an idyllic American suburb, where I lived under the cushy regime of absent-minded academic parents and progressive schools, where safety was taken for granted and I had the luxury to learn empathy and compassion,” Fincher remembered.

That intimate experience of “emotional whiplash” – viewing firsthand the extent to which people could express capacities both for kindness and cruelty – fascinated her. But she never considered psychology research as career until she met her first mentor as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania – the legendary Paul Rozin.

“Paul is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet, and he has such a profound intellectual curiosity that he will make you excited about nearly any idea,” Fincher explained. Inspired by her work with Rozin, which centered on disgust, she decided to pursue graduate work in psychology at Penn with Professor Philip Tetlock. Once again, the working approach Tetlock had to his craft proved more important than his particular interests. “For me research typically starts with people and the degree of intellectual chemistry we have,” she said. “I love the way [Tetlock] thinks and approaches problems,” Fincher said.

Her doctoral dissertation explored perceptual dehumanization, and her research since has broadly centered around “a wide range of issues related to moral psychology” and “the psychological mechanisms which enable humans to live in cooperative social groups.”

Fincher’s overarching interest in the psychology of sociality branches off in two distinct but connected directions. The first concerns the psychological mechanisms that enable empathy or cruelty; the second, the ways in which individuals relate to social values and norms. These two are connected because, according to Fincher, “we deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems.” In this sense, understanding the capacity for extremes of compassion and cruelty means understanding both individual psychological processes as well as broader social ones.

Fincher explores what scientists call “perceptual humanization and dehumanization”; in particular, “the psychological mechanisms which enable people to treat one individual callously and another kindly.”

From Fincher, K.M., Tetlock, P.E. & Morris, M.W. (2017) Interfacing with Faces: Perceptual Humanization and Dehumanization, Current Directions in Psy. Sci.

As illustrated in the above graphic, much of her research looks at the way people perceive one another’s expressions. “Not surprisingly, what matters a great deal is how you engage with the individual’s face. People visually process faces in two qualitatively different ways.”

In a humanizing mode, an individual will take in the other’s face as a whole, generally focusing on the eyes. By contrast, in a dehumanizing mode the observer’s eyes will drift from feature to feature, showing an inability to think of the other in holistic, humanized terms. Demonstrating this difference experimentally has been one of Fincher’s main accomplishments to date.

Yet she is also interested in the larger question: What accounts for this difference? What makes it so that an individual gazes upon someone in such a dehumanizing light? According to Fincher, there are three larger reasons: to enforce norms and facilitate. punishment; to tolerate the suffering of others in situations of high moral conflict; and to enable strategic decision-making.

“We deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems,” Fincher stated. “Humanizing perceptions are elicited in a cooperative context and lead to empathy, compassion, and the desire to fulfill another’s needs even at a personal cost,” Fincher said. “In contrast, dehumanizing perceptions are elicited in competitive situations and function to disengage moral restraint and lead to callousness, indifference, and the desire to ignore another’s pain even for no personal gain.”

In other words, our perception of others is largely determined by the larger institutional or social context, wherein the main determinants are norms and values. Here Fincher makes another distinction between “social norms,” which mean the ordinary socially accepted standards for acceptable behavior, and “sacred values,” which refer to the deeper underlying principles that govern which behaviors become normative or not. Theorists have taken norms to change more speedily than the more fundamental sacred values for any given society. Fincher questions that consensus, however. “[My] work shows that although people claim sacred values are absolute they actually function very similarly to social norms,” she said — work that the Army Research Institute recently awarded $1.2 million.

Since earning her doctorate, Fincher has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Management at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. There, she continued her research into and published several journal articles on a number of psychological phenomena connection to social and moral psychology, including perceptual dehumanization as well as the sacralization of social norms.

During her first year at NSSR, Fincher will be teaching classes on exactly those topics. In Interpersonal Interactions in the fall, she’ll work with graduate students to take a closer look at conflict, the social attributions we make about others, and how a social environment influences how we think and communicate. In the spring, she’ll teach a broader survey on moral psychology, and how morality and moral issues connect to recent sociopolitical issues – topics at the heart of NSSR’s century-long work engaging in the most pressing issues of the day.

Fulbright Grants Send Two NSSR Students to Mexico

Although Tania Aparicio and Guadalupe Chavez were both New School for Social Research (NSSR) students, their paths just never crossed. It’s not too surprising: Aparicio’s doctoral studies in Sociology and many student jobs keep her pretty busy, while Chavez just finished her master’s degree in Politics.

What’s finally brought these emerging scholars together? A profound interest in Mexico, and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. As NSSR’s two Fulbright Scholarships recipients, Aparicio and Chavez will spend the 2018-2019 academic year in Mexico carrying out critical research in their fields.

Two students winning Fulbright grants is enough for any school to celebrate. But two students winning Fulbright grants to the same country — which accepts fewer than 10% of applicants — is something particularly special.

As NSSR extends its warm congratulations to Aparicio and Chavez, Research Matters is excited to share their important work with our wider community. Their stories showcase not only the quality research NSSR students are carrying out, but also the doors that such scholarships can open to students at all levels of graduate study who aim to do nothing short of change the world.

New Directions at a New School

For the Brooklyn-born Chavez, charting a future intellectual itinerary was directly linked to connecting with her family’s history. “Being the daughter of Mexican migrants, I was always interested in how U.S. immigration policies were designed at the federal level, and why these policies always created a distinctive binary between the deserving and undeserving migrant.”

While studying political science and getting involved in local activism, Chavez interned on Capitol Hill and found the level of legislative discourse surrounding immigration policy lacking. “How can these politicians talk or even design migration policies when they lack a critical understanding of migration, and have never experienced what is like to live in constant fear of having their family deported? My experiences in Capitol Hill challenged me to think more critically about citizenship, the construction of illegality and rethink migration and mobility beyond a nation-state framework,” Chavez said.

After earning her BA, Chavez sought out ways to research immigration policy at the graduate level, focusing on U.S.-Mexico relations as a way of making a tangible contribution to those communities. ”I was looking for a program that examined public policies of course, but that also interrogated complex concepts such as citizenship, belonging, membership mobility, and borders. I was also looking for a politics department that studied global political issues beyond a state-centric framework, and NSSR has been the best place for examining these complex concepts,” Chavez explained.

Aparicio’s journey involves migration as well, but has also been driven by an interest in alternative education and the arts — specifically, film. She explained that because of changes in tuition and class ratios at her school in Lima, Peru, “we had a student-organized protest that turned into a conference. My role was to do research on alternative forms of education. I found out about John Dewey and I did a presentation about Bennington College and The New School.”

When Aparicio’s undergraduate institution shuttered, she decided to apply to The New School — not to NSSR, but rather to the Schools of Public Engagement (SPE), where she could study film and social science. A generous scholarship and willingness to accept her previously earned credits, plus The New School’s proximity to New York’s film industry, made the choice easy. After graduating and working in film for two years, she realized on-set life was not for her and decided to return to The New School, this time as a graduate student.

“I didn’t know anyone who had come to grad school,” Aparicio remembered. “And so I applied to the school that had opened doors to me before. I had always been interested in the sociology of cultural production, in understanding critically the meaning of cultural production in our society. When I came, however, I was still very much steeped in the language of communications.”

Her transition from film to sociology was marked by an encounter with the professor who would become her doctoral advisor: Associate Professor of Sociology Rachel Sherman. “I remember a meeting early in my first year where she said, ‘You have to stop thinking about what is on the screen and start thinking about the communities that are around the screen that bring the screen to life.’ That completely blew my mind and made me realize ‘Oh, that’s what I’m interested in!’” Aparicio said, adding, “I feel [Professor Sherman] was the first person who actually knew what to say to direct my gaze in a sociological way.”

Bringing It All Together

Once at NSSR, Chavez similarly worked closely with professors to distill her interests, while also noting the importance of learning from her peers and attending lectures and events on campus. Her final research proposal, and the one that helped her write her winning Fulbright application: “I am interested in exploring how formal and informal institutions respond to the “return” and expulsion of migrants from the U.S to Mexico and the types of organizations and mobilizations that arise after expulsion. Moreover, I also have an interest in decolonial approaches to international relations and to studying migration and mobility. Overall, I am interested in translating theory into innovative political practices.”

Aparicio, on the other hand, developed her dissertation topic in a more hands-on way. “In the second year of my MA, I went to Mexico. I was thinking I was going to write about a social movement that started in the film industry after NAFTA was signed, which had a big impact on the film industry,” she said. While this idea eventually fell by the wayside, it planted the seed for a new research project. Going to the Cineteca Nacional, she started to think about how to research film spaces themselves. Back in New York, Aparicio learned that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was the first museum to include film in their collection, “creating a kind of division between film as art and movies as entertainment.” Deciding to bridge the two cities, she proposed, in her PhD application, a comparative study between MoMA and Mexico’s Cineteca. In the summer of 2017, a research grant from the Janey Program in Latin American Studies helped her return to Cineteca Nacional and secure important institutional affiliations to bolster her Fulbright application.

Aparicio’s two advisors reflect her diverse academic background. With Professor Sherman, she investigates how prestige is constructed; with University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici, she focuses more on the institutions themselves. Economic anthropologist Janet Roitman and a CUNY Graduate Center faculty member round out her preliminary dissertation committee, and she also hopes to collaborate with Associate Professor of Sociology Virag Molnar, who has a special interest in the sociology of art.

Plans for Mexico

For each student, the Fulbright Scholarship is a unique opportunity to propel their research forward with fundamental field research.

As Chavez described it, her Fulbright project focuses on “how formal and informal institutions respond to the ‘return’ and deportation of the Mexican diaspora, particularly of the formerly undocumented youth that grew up in the U.S.” She will also probe the types of organizing and mobilization taking place in Mexico after deportation or return, “especially when so many deportees and returnees experience ‘double abandonment’ and estranged citizenship in their country of birth.” Conducting this face-to-face research in Mexico will help Chavez explore this multifaceted phenomenon through a robust “bilateral and transnational lens…[and] see how other scholars and students working on this topic handle similar work. avoid and or address potential research and fieldwork dilemmas.”

Aparicio’s decision to apply to the Fulbright program came as she reached a crossroads in her early career. “As much as I’m a student, I am also a worker at the university. I’ve been working really hard in order to support myself. So I knew when I went into the PhD that if I was going to take this risk, I had to go all out.”

In practice, this meant that she developed a meticulous study timeline, specifying when she wanted to finish classes, write for publications, and apply for grants. “This year the goal was to get a grant…otherwise it just wasn’t sustainable,” she explained.

After attending a workshop run by Katie Wolff, the Fulbright representative for The New School, Aparicio was motivated to apply for the scholarship — especially because the Mexican program explicitly encouraged projects that engaged art communities in the U.S. and Mexico. She similarly advises future applicants to “know for which grants you’d make a good candidate.”

Fulbright funding, in addition to a dissertation fellowship, will enable Aparicio to stay in Mexico City for nine months, largely researching at the Cineteca. “Now I’m going to be able to just focus on my work. I can’t even imagine what I’ll be able to do over the next year…without having to stress about money, healthcare,” she said.

In addition to Wolff’s workshop, Aparicio and Chavez received invaluable encouragement, feedback, and support from Tsuya Yee, assistant dean of academic affairs; Jennifer MacDonald, associate director for graduate career success, NSSR professors such as Associate Professor of Politics Anne McNevin and SPE professors such as Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies Alexandra Délano Alonso.

Looking Forward

The young scholars are excited about what’s coming next. In matters both scholarly and personal, the Fulbright is an important achievement. “I look forward to immersing myself as much as possible in my family’s culture,” said Chavez, “meeting new people, learning more about Mexican politics, particularly the relationships between the state and civil society, how the Mexican state manages and addresses migration from its southern border. I hope to become involved in my new community as much as possible….I wonder how locals will respond to my identity as Mexican and American and to what extent will I fit in the community.”

For her part, Aparicio spoke of a vital opportunity for reconnection. “My parents haven’t been able to come to the U.S., ever. They’ve been denied the tourist visa. So I’m looking forward to being able to go to their next visa interview and show them that I’m a Fulbright.”

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

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.