Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.

Supporting Women in Philosophy

Philosophy takes the most fundamental and universal problems of humanity quite seriously. Yet, as a discipline, it continues to face its own fundamental problem: As of 2016, only 30 percent of undergraduate students, 30 percent of graduate students, and nearly 21 percent of professors in Philosophy are women. Those numbers are even lower for women of color and queer and trans women. Many women who do pursue advanced study in philosophy speak of a serious climate problem, and of informal barriers that keep them from fully flourishing in the discipline.

In 2001, students at The New School for Social Research organized People in Support of Women in Philosophy (PSWIP), a local branch of a widespread network of loosely affiliated Women in Philosophy groups that support and foster scholarship by women in philosophy, and bring attention to some of the most difficult barriers women in a field dominated by men.

Among the most successful and enduring student-organized groups at NSSR, PSWIP has evolved since its founding 18 years ago. What began as a supportive place to share and discuss feminist philosophy has expanded to focus on supporting women in the department with varying research interests. Recent Philosophy doctoral graduate and longtime PSWIP member Juniper Alcorn recalls the shift: “First it was workshopping papers, but eventually it was also about advancing the work of women in the department as well as creating opportunities for them to make connections and other professional development initiatives.”

This year’s PSWIP facilitators, Philosophy MA students Katie Gruszecki and Tara Mastrelli, have continued that tradition. Describing PSWIP as a “research and publications support group,” the group’s main focus is its weekly meetings in which members workshop a variety of research, from papers and abstracts to oral presentations and exams. During a recent session, Gruszecki presented a paper on Hegel and bodily harm. “I show the difficulty in accepting Hegel’s argument for denying one the right to die with dignity,” she summarizes. “I argue for the right to die with dignity due to the necessity to abstain from violence involved in staying alive under certain conditions.”

Discussion facilitation during PSWIP meetings reflects the group’s mission and members’ concerns about climate in the field. Once limited to women in the department, PSWIP is now open to philosophers of all genders. Male allies are regular contributors and group discussions run on the “progressive stack” technique; as moderators make a list of who would like to speak, women and gender minorities are given priority.

While typical philosophical discussions can often take on a rather antagonistic tone, PSWIP cultivates an atmosphere that is more constructive. “Here, people who’d feel reticent to speak in class can have a more inviting space in which to share their ideas,” Gruszecki says. Members accomplish this by placing greater emphasis on providing a charitable interpretation of others’ work, and by being aware of unhelpful interpersonal dynamics. “This means that we try to give the most generous interpretation of other people’s positions, as well as providing each other the benefit of the doubt,” Mastrelli adds.

“I always think of PSWIP as a platform to not only have these discussions about the state of the field that makes it necessary for this kind of group to exist, but to also create a platform for people to succeed in philosophy,” says Alcorn. Informal networks of peer mentorship have formed through PSWIP outside the classroom, and the group has supported initiatives including a dissertation support group and alumni network.

PSWIP journal covers from 2010-2013

One of PSWIP’s major initiatives this academic year is the relaunch of their annual journal, which had been on hiatus since 2014. The journal showcases papers that have been workshopped in PSWIP throughout the year, providing readers with a view into the type of rigorous work that can be created and celebrated through a supportive scholarly environment. It also provides members with an opportunity to gain editorial experience and have their work published. Past journal editors have gone on to hold faculty positions and attend doctoral programs at Stony Brook University, University of Texas at Austin, and Emory University, among others. And through a new agreement with the Philosophy Documentation Center, the journal will now also reach readers beyond NSSR. 

While all of these efforts serve to lift up marginalized voices, PSWIP is also working to change ongoing gender, sexual, and racial dynamics in the field. The group is challenging NSSR’s Philosophy Department to explicitly address some of the most pressing issues concerning marginalizing gender dynamics within the discipline: implicit bias, stereotype threat, and a general sense that women, queer, and trans students’ contributions are less valued. “We want to support philosophy students, graduate or undergraduate, who face oppression on the basis of their gender,” says Gruszecki. Reflecting that commitment, this year’s PSWIP Colloquium speaker is writer and critic Andrea Long Chu, who will discuss her forthcoming book, Females: A Concern (Verso, 2019), on March 14, 2019.

In previous years, PSWIP members conducted student surveys that showed considerable differences between the classroom experiences of men and people of other genders. These differences reflected a sense that men tend to dominate not just readings, but also in-class discussions as well as more informal departmental social dynamics. This survey led to many important conversations, calls for more attentive practices on the part of administration and faculty around class management, event planning, and even hiring and admissions practices.

The current PSWIP leadership looks to build on this legacy. “This year we’ve launched a gender dynamics share space, which is a Google Form that people can use to anonymously collect testimony to discuss internally or bring up at the yearly departmental town hall,” Mastrelli explains. “Perhaps this is something that doesn’t require action now, but will allow students to feel heard today and perhaps someone to feel they are not alone tomorrow.” By building this database of shared experiences, current members seek to support their fellow students of today as well as build a stronger foundation and brighter future for future Philosophy scholars.

Rewarding Courage in Public Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Human Sciences After the Human

The world in which we live today has little to do with the world in which most of the academic disciplines that comprise the human sciences were founded. What does it mean to study “the human” in our times, and what are the limitations of this practice?

These questions are the very center of the work of Tobias Rees, 2018-2019 Reid Hoffman Professor for the Humanities at The New School, and affiliated faculty in The New School for Social Research’s Department of Anthropology. Rees draws on various sources of knowledge, and his fields of study range from brain science to artificial intelligence (AI), and from microbiome research to global health.

Weaving a rich and multidisciplinary tapestry — he holds degrees in philosophy, art history, and anthropology — Rees argues that “the world has outgrown our concepts” — that many of our most taken-for-granted concepts are inventions of the modern era that are no longer fit descriptors. He invites us to consider how this sort of intellectual shift might be due to the inadequacies of these concepts themselves, and that a transformation of the human sciences is perhaps not something to be fought against but rather considered and, in some ways, welcomed.

Take, for example, society. Meant to distinguish ‘the human’ from ‘mere’ animals, ‘society’ has also been synonymous with ‘race’ or ‘people’ or ‘nation’. “The idea that humans are social beings, that what defines them in their essence is that they always –– everywhere and every time –– live and have lived in a society, this is an idea that first emerges in the late 18th century, in the context of the French Revolution,” Rees said.

Since our notion of society, and of what kinds of beings we are, has changed very little over time, the term carries significant conceptual baggage and presents a problem for contemporary scholars. “There are many aspects of the present that we cannot subsume under the heading of the social as it was conceived of in the early 19th century,” Rees explains. “They range in style and might not add up. We can begin with the observation that ‘the social’ is usually tied to ‘a society,’ and that arguably not all people who live on a national territory are members of national society. Or we can be more provocative and point out that the assumption that what sets humans apart from animals is their sociality is somewhat untenable: If our neurotransmitters are made of bacteria living in our gut, then where does the human end and its microbiome begin? Are microbes part of society? Or, different example, the learning and thinking machines that artificial intelligence (AI) engineers are building?”

A radical rethinking of society may have profound consequences to our political lives. A question that preoccupies Rees is this: “How can a reformulation of our notion of the social –— maybe even a replacement of that term, given its strong anthropocentrism –— give rise to a new concept of the political, of political theory, of justice?” In other words, how can we understand ourselves and critique our conditions without ideas that rely on outdated assumptions about ourselves?

At present, Rees is exploring how fields like AI, microbiome research, and neuroscience challenge and change our concept of the human. “Your microbiome contributes more gene function to your organism than your own genome,” he says in a recent film. “It’s as if the ‘human’ is such that the thing that human sciences study doesn’t exist.” Similarly, his book Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms (2016) explores the scientific discovery that new cellular tissue emerges in mature brains, proving that the brain is plastic rather than fixed and immutable, and raising new possibilities about what is human.

At the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, he leads the Transformations of the Human project, which places philosophers and artists in key research sites to foster dialogue with technologists, aiming to “render AI and Biotech visible as unusually potent experimental sites for reformulating our vocabulary for thinking about ourselves.”

Rees is attracted to heterodox institutions like the Berggruen Institute and, currently, The New School for Social Research. He believes they hold promise for a new kind of human science research that does not rely on unquestioned concepts and thereby foreclose the emergence of new models. In fact, he names The New School for Social Research “as one place I can actually imagine genuinely new kinds of experiments that could reinvent the human sciences.”

“Every science or discipline assumes that there is a reality sui generis that requires that science in order to comprehend it,” he states. These theoretical assumptions can wear old with age, but more importantly, they restrict our ability to understand the world by defining it in advance. “The cultural anthropologist will always find culture. The sociologist always finds society. Whatever knowledge is produced is either determined or conditioned by the assumptions you start with. It’s always more of the same.”

Social science, insofar as it presumes to understand what a society or the human can be, forecloses genuine discovery of challenging, novel, facts that run counter to our current notions of what humanity is.

Rees’ antidote is what he terms ‘exposure’ or ‘field sciences.’ An ethnographer approaches his subject with conceptual humility, not assuming that any of her concepts will be the same to those used by a different culture. In this humility and openness to understand without reducing the new information to predetermined frameworks, the field ethnographer makes space for genuine discovery.

“Imagine doing fieldwork in order to find out if there are things that escape the concepts of the human implicit in the analytical tool kit the human sciences have been contingent on. Imagine fieldwork as a kind of exposure of miniature concepts of the human, and the job of the researcher were to detect mutations of these miniature humans. Imagine, furthermore, that this would be an ongoing, never-ending project,” Rees explains.

His latest book, After Ethnos (2018), aims at de-anthropologizing anthropology –– and to provide a rough, tentative sketch of what he refers to as philosophically and poetically-inclined field science. “I’m trying to build research projects that make these new emerging fields visible as experimental laboratories for a ceaseless reconfiguration of the human, as fields that open up new epistemic spaces that allow one to explore possibilities for being human after ‘the human.’”

Jeremy Varon in Conversation: The Meanings and Legacies of the 1960s

The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of 1968, the iconic year of a seismic decade in the U.S. and around the world. Amid countless museum exhibits, academic conferences, and media retrospectives, many drew comparisons between 1968 and today around increasing global turbulence and sense of unease.

Professor of History Jeremy Varon is an American historian specializing in the 1960s, and in 2008 co-founded The Sixties, the first academic journal solely devoted to scholarly study of the decade. He recently reflected on the 1968-2018 comparison, and on the ways in which we study, celebrate, and remember our past, for Public Seminar.

Research Matters spoke with Varon about the topic, and the more personal dimensions he brings to his research. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Research Matters: In your work, you discuss the idea of nostalgia, and of the “anniversary glut” as a double-edged sword. You open your Editor’s Statement [of The Sixties] by stating that what you want to do in the journal is not traffic in nostalgia but provide an actual professional history–provide a memorialization of the period that is more nuanced. What do you see as the pitfalls of nostalgia? And what do you think is its power or allure?

Professor of History Jeremy VaronJeremy Varon: The 1960s, and 1968 in particular, are endlessly memorialized, especially in those societies that, during that time, underwent profound transformations. Part of that memorialization is often a reliving of that past by those who shaped it, and that memorial culture can be either superficial or substantive depending on the media. This can be a wonderful point of entry for younger people who aren’t familiar with this period, and a wonderful incitement to memory for the people who lived through it. But for a discerning professional scholar, it’s a mixed bag: there’s exposure of an important era that I’ve dedicated my life to studying professionally, but yet a kind of reduction of history to a set of ruling cliches.

I define nostalgia as an affection for one’s past simply because it was one’s past. Engaging the ‘60s beyond nostalgia involves a combination of assiduous historical study that tries to understand the alchemy that produced a singularly robust era of global revolt in the history of human civilization. History never fully goes away; it is with us, and we live with it. Still, half a century later, the ‘60s represent an epic frame of reference–partly mythological–to which people appeal when they want to champion justice, confront illegitimate power, and advance the project of human liberation. In my work, and in the journal, we try to honor both: detached scholarly analysis, and then ethically and existentially engaged connection with a history that I see as an unfinished project.

RM: I’m interested in the personal aspect of it for you. What are the elements of the ‘60s to which you’re most drawn in your research?

JV: I was born in 1967. As a child, I was obsessed with the ‘60s and wanted to participate in whatever of it was still available to me. [By college in the 1980s], my life consisted of reading philosophy and literature, playing the guitar with friends, and ceaselessly protesting, while living in what was essentially a campus commune. I saw myself as in some sense trying to deeply realize the ethical vision of the 60’s movers and shakers: Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, people I saw as these larger-than-life moral superheroes. When I started to study the era in a more sophisticated way, I remained inspired by the genuine heroism but also very curious about the moral and political complexities of the era.

The Sixties: A journal of History, Politics and Culture is the only academic, peer reviewed journal to focus solely on this transformative decade of history.

RM: You write that your hope for The Sixties journal, which celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, is to sharpen and expand the terms of established debates and open up new ones. What debates about the ‘60s were ongoing in 2008?

JV: The journal was founded during a time at which there was no such thing as “1960s Studies.” It was explicitly meant to be a catalyst for an emerging subfield as opposed to a disciplinary reorientation. I think the journal has succeeded in being that kind of home that has helped the field evolve. The single greatest evolution has been the maturation of the idea of the global ‘60s–that there were spirited revolts that were happening almost synchronically in diverse settings throughout the world, and that to understand the ‘60s deeply you had to understand the causes of this unbelievable synchronicity far transcended coincidence. By now, the global ‘60s as a framing concept has achieved a kind of hegemony and I think it’s increasingly understood that the grand narrative in which the revolts of the ‘60s participated was decolonization: the “Third World “trying to liberate itself from the chains of colonialism, inspiring in the process all kinds of freedom struggles that might exist outside of an explicit colonial context.

As to where we have broken new ground, I would point to an essay about East Germany’s adoption of the paper dress, which was invented by Andy Warhol and other Western pop artists as a kind of disposable art that made some comment on mass consumer culture. In East Germany at the time, they had a shortage of cotton and needed to produce things cheaply. So they marketed this paper dress as a kind of wearable fashion. Though it was the product of decadent, bourgeois Western modernism, East Germany also wanted their youth to participate just enough in the global youth culture so they wouldn’t feel left out and disdainful toward their elderly communist masters. That’s what I call a “global ‘60s adventure story,” where you have the migration and resignification of certain texts, artifacts, and impulses in disparate geographies, conditioned by geopolitical and economic conflicts.

A second landmark essay is a major rethinking of the counterculture by David Farber. He used the concept of “right livelihood,” a Buddhist idea–that young people wanted to separate themselves from the crassly materialistic mainstream and live lives of meaning, but also had to earn enough money to have a proper livelihood. The essay provides a reinterpretation of the counterculture not simply as the enemy of white-collar, soul-deadening bureaucracy, but a movement of young people who went to work to try to build, if only in small ways, a more humane society. Farber’s essay is absolutely required reading for anybody who does anything new with the idea of the counterculture.

RM: Bill Clinton once said, “If you look back on the ’60s and think there was more good than harm, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” I’m interested in the way that the ‘60s, and especially the memory of this time and the way we make meaning of this era, defines political lines. How do you see that playing out?

JV: I would argue that the memory wars over the ‘60s are ongoing. Clinton’s diagnosis more or less still holds. Many people have said that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is a reference to a pre-1960s past, where white supremacy was substantially uncontested; [second-wave] feminism hadn’t yet happened; America was very much a white, Christian nation, as defined by the people at the top of social and cultural ladder. Progressive America, broadly defined, wants to deepen values of pluralism, ecological stewardship, emancipation–the hallmarks of the ‘60s.

There are, however, twists. For example, a lot of conservatives see themselves as today’s great rebels, fighting against the politically correct, progressive, Hollywood, beltway establishment. The younger set of conservatives feel like they are the ones who are authentically fighting a new kind of liberal establishment.

RM: As a historian, what are some of the ways in which you have been challenged and have challenged other people to push past that kind of easy division of the 60s between “it was mostly good” or “it was mostly bad”?

JV: I would say that the single greatest example is how I present the ultra-radicalism of the Weathermen. People who denounce the Weathermen think that I’m an apologist for terrorism, while people who are closer to their vision think that I represent some kind of liberal mainstream that marginalizes radicalism. I don’t think that either of these accusations is true or fair, and neither speaks to the complexity with which I try to present a morally and politically complex history.

My other intervention is to get my colleagues to recognize that our sustained interest in the 1960s isn’t simply because a lot of important stuff happened then. Its enduring appeal is the power of its political and moral, world-changing vision of a more just and more free world. And more and more as I get deeper and deeper into this identity, I’m owning that sense of wanting to sustain a legacy of contestation in how I do my scholarship and, in a deeper sense, how I live my live. And that has meant a return to that sense of awe I had as a young boy looking at this history just out of my reach, one that seemed almost infinite in its mandate to future generations to struggle in their own times and in their own terms to make a better world.