For the 2022-2023 academic year, The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Prof. Dr. Katharina Schramm as the Distinguished Theodor Heuss Professor in the Anthropology department. She will give the annual Heuss Lecture on November 2; register here.
Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth and Member of the Anthropology of Global Inequalities Working Group, Schramm sees her current research agenda as situated at the interface of political anthropology and critical race studies, science and technology studies (STS), and critical heritage studies. She has worked on diasporic memory and pan-African identity politics (African Homecoming, Left Coast Press 2010); violence and memorial landscapes (“Landscapes of violence”, special issue of History & Memory 2011); race and technologies of belonging in the European border regime (“Technologies of Belonging”, special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values 2014); race and the sciences of human origins, especially population genomics and biological anthropology (special section “Face and Race”, American Anthropologist 2020; “Race, Genealogy, and the Genomic Archive in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Social Analysis 2021) as well as on the multiple articulations of political subjectivities (special issue “Political Subjectivity in Times of Transformation”, Critical African Studies 2018).
The Heuss Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings a prominent German academic to NSSR each year to conduct research and teach, maintaining a decades-long bond between The New School and the German academic world.
Schramm talked with Matene Toure, NSSR Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student, about her research interests, the state of anthropology today, and her upcoming Nov. 2 Heuss lecture “Fire Is Good to Think With: Protest as a Mode of Theorizing.”
How did you learn about the Heuss Professorship opportunity? What intrigued you about teaching at The New School for Social Research?
Oh, that’s an interesting question (laughs). I learned about the professorship through my predecessor in anthropology, Richard Rottenburg, who was here I believe seven years ago. I knew he was teaching at NSSR and then later I was nominated for the professorship. I feel very honored to be able to be here and to have this opportunity not only to engage with and teach at The New School, but also to have the time for my own projects. Of course, the history of The New School is an interesting one, the kind of specific connection that The New School has had with German scholars in exile.
So there is the ghost of the past that is fascinating. But I also like the reach out between different disciplines: design, social sciences, music, etc. And I think for anthropologists, this is particularly exciting, because we are also experimenting on methodologies in transdisciplinary fields.
What are your areas of focus within anthropology at the University of Bayreuth? You are part of a working group called Anthropology of Global Inequities. Can you explain more about that?
My own research interests have always been around questions of race and racism in a very broad sense. For the past 10 years or so, I’ve also worked very much at the interface between anthropology and science and technology studies (STS).
The anthropology of global inequalities is a group of PhD students and postdocs that I relate to in various capacities. The title of the group aligns with our shared interests in matters of inequalities on a global scale. We are particularly interested in forms of classifications that underlie hierarchization in multiple ways. This is heavily informed by feminist and postcolonial approaches in STS that look at the material-semiotic practices through which categories come about, but then also at the effects of what they do and how they can be undone. And I think we also have a shared interest in public anthropology in the sense that we also want our work to be relevant and to speak to current issues and problems.
The lecture builds on my research in South Africa, where I’ve been working for almost 15 years. My research in post-apartheid South Africa focused on the ways in which the sciences of human origins were used to contest apartheid racism, while at the same time being haunted by race in many ways. This goes along with a theoretical interest in epistemic practices and in the university as a contested space of knowledge production. In my lecture, I want to explore how to think differently about the connection between activism and scholarship and how we can view protest as a form of knowledge production in its own right.
One of the important insights from STS has been an approach to knowledge not in a hierarchy, but in a symmetrical way, and post-colonial STS has put a heavy focus on that. STS has also helped us to think about messiness in new ways, for example through the notion of “fire objects” that engage us in multiple, and often contradictory, relations. In my lecture, I will extend this discussion to the realm of political protest within the university. During the protests, fire became literally a point of contestation about the modes of conduct and the means of critique. I want to think with fire because it takes us out of the comfort zone of purely academic knowledge production.
At Eugene Lang this fall, you are teaching a course called Race in Science/Tech Studies. How has anthropology perpetuated white supremacist ideologies through race science? How can anthropology also work towards debunking racism?
Big question. I think anthropology is really an interesting field in that sense because anthropology is a colonial science, it grew with colonialism. It has contributed to the “making of the other” while at the same time voices within anthropology have always questioned these narratives. Your question also relates to the title of my lecture, which might make you think of Ryan Jobson’s recent demand to let anthropology burn which has caused a huge stir in U.S. anthropology.
He made an important point in demanding more from anthropology than to rely on its anti-racist, liberal self-understanding. I think this is a very interesting moment for the discipline that also plays out differently in different contexts in Germany, the U.S., Brazil or South Africa. But I do think that anthropology has interesting means through its methodologies and its openness to reinvent itself, to respond to these challenges.
In the class that I’m teaching this term, we look at some of the ways in which race has been conceptualized and discussed within STS and anthropology. We are specifically interested in the ways in which race is produced and relationally articulated in scientific practices and material assemblages, for example in the fields of genomics, forensics or biological anthropology. In these STS studies, race is understood as a troubling problem, a material semiotic object, and a matter of concern that demands our attention.
This spring at NSSR, you will teach a course on the Methodologies of Care. Is there more you can share about that right now?
What I’m interested in is how we can rethink ethnography in this moment when anthropology is under fire? What are different forms of engagement in academia and activism, maybe in the arts as well, and how can we integrate these into our practice? How can we think about methodologies that go beyond the gaze and beyond discourse? I will consider discussions about the senses and around affect to illuminate this.
The care in the methodologies of care comes from discussions that we’ve had with colleagues on how to translate demands or discussions around decoloniality into very concrete empirical research practices. Like fire, care is good to think with, because it’s contradictory. Care also means to cultivate attentiveness. I look forward to exploring this together with the students who will hopefully bring in their own questions and concerns from their various projects.
As part of a commitment to socially engaged and meaningful research, the NSSR Dean’s Office supports a range of student-organized projects and conferences each year. Even amid a pandemic, NSSR students have envisioned incredibly creative, intellectually rigorous, and community-minded projects and conferences. Read on for more about the Fall 2021 recipients of our MA Project Grants and the Dean’s Conference Fund, who are launching their projects and conferences in 2022.
MA Project Grants
NSSR launched the MA Project Grant program in 2016 to improve the research environment and academic life for master’s students. Every semester, student join together to create and launch projects across disciplines that address pressing contemporary questions while also building lasting community at the school.
The Fall 2021 recipients of the MA Project Grants are:
UN:RESOLVED (by The En[…]Clothed Collective)
In an attempt to explore how clothing acts as a mediator between various “bodies,” states and environments, En[…]Clothed collective hones in on the lived experience of embodiment at the intersections of design practice, material culture, philosophy, religion, anthropology, and sociology.
Organizers: Gabrielle Vazquez (Anthropology) and Fiona Dieffenbacher (Parsons)
The Faculty for Meditative Research and Learning(FMRL)
Drawing from the disciplines of Psychology, Anthropology, Political Science, and Philosophy, FMRL is a forum for scholars and practitioners who are engaging with meditation and contemplative practices as unique areas of scientific inquiry, areas that have been historically ignored by the Western academy but are now gaining widespread attention due to their implications in public health and consciousness studies.
Organizer: Jon Epstein (Psychology)
Dean’s Conference Fund
Often times trans- and interdisciplinary, NSSR student-run conferences blur and contest traditional lines inside and outside of academia and are one of the most productive sites for intellectual growth at the school. They are also where students begin to make their mark as active scholars in their field.
In Spring 2022, the Dean’s Conference Fund will support the following NSSR student-run conferences:
In response to the worldwide need to While athletes are celebrated for doing the impossible physically, there has been growing recognition that athlete mental health has been greatly overlooked. Must well-being come at the expense of competition? What would sports look like if wellbeing and mental health were seen as integral to training, competition, and injuries? Efforts to transform sports culture will require diverse perspectives and frameworks.
Date: January 28, 2022
Organizers: Nicole Ross and Chloe Sherrill (Psychology)
The second graduate Political Concepts conference will convene students from all fields of study at NYU, UC Riverside, Harvard, and Duke at NSSR, each focusing on a single concept – including abolition, statistics, and paradise – with the express intention of resituating its meaning in the field of political discourse.
Dates: March 25-27, 2022
Organizers: Helia Faezipour (Politics), Allan Hillani (Philosophy), Clover Reshad (Politics), Jochen Schmon (Politics), Paula Cucurella, Christina Chalmers
Decolonizing Eastern European Studies – Knowledge as an Object of Inquiry
Since the end of the Cold War, numerous attempts have been made to understand the nature of the transformation taking place in Eastern Europe and the ongoing legacy of socialism. Conceptualized through the lenses of postsocialism and more recently postcolonialism, the changing characterization of the region has marked the shifting politics of representation and politics of identity. The aim of this conference is to critically assess and challenge these dominant conceptual frameworks.
Tentative dates: April 6-8, 2022
Organizers: Karolina Koziura and Agnes Szanyi (Sociology)
With/In Environments: Reimagining Frameworks and Practices for Environmental Philosophy
The 20th Annual NSSR Graduate Student Philosophy Conference asks how we might reorient the language and practices of philosophy in a way that can enable us to adequately respond to ongoing environmental crises.
Dates: April 14-17, 2022
Organizers: Dante Apaestegui, Veronica Dakota Padilla, Eva Perez de Vega, Vidya Ravilochan, Sarah V. Schweig, James Trybendis(Philosophy)
Contradictions in Capitalism: Feminist Perspectives
This conference explores the deepening tensions inherent within capitalism that both shape and are shaped by dynamics of exploitation. While feminist movements have identified the contradiction between production and reproduction as a central contradiction in capitalism, the categories of class and race point to the contradictions of extractivist capital accumulation and exploitation of labor performed by racialized and expropriated populations. Far from being accidental or exceptions to an otherwise functional economic system, structural violence and asymmetries arising from these contradictions are persistent because they form the very foundation of capitalism. This conference seeks to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue, situating academic knowledge production within the social movements that inform its analyses.
Dates: April 23, 2022
Organizers: Altaira Caldarella (Gender and Sexuality Studies), Patrich Co (Politics), Charlie Ebert (Philosophy), Penelope Kyritsis (Economics), Mette Kierstein Nielsen (Gender and Sexuality Studies), Lena Nowak-Laird (Philosophy), Isaiah Turner-Wyatt (Philosophy), Cassandra Williams (Sociology)
Sex Workers Built the Internet
Porn built the internet. Erotic BBS groups built the internet. Camming built the internet. Craigslist Casual Encounters built the internet. Desire built the internet. “Sex Workers Built the Internet” addresses this deleted history, centering sex workers’ experiences, voices, and activism in an urgent retelling of the internet’s past, present, and possible futures.
Date: May 2022
Organizers: Sarah Epstein (Psychology) and Livia Foldes (Parsons)
This fall, The New School for Social Research welcomes Sam Winer as a new Associate Professor of Psychology. A clinical psychologist, Winer uses novel methods and theory to attempt to better understand, identify, and treat individuals experiencing anhedonia, depression, and anxiety.
Winer is a self-admitted “longtime admirer of The New School” and its historical and current emphasis on social justice, which is also a focus in his own research, teaching, and service to his discipline. In the NSSR Psychology department in particular, Winer admires the emphasis on “depth hypotheses — what are some of the motivating factors for why people behave as they do, what are some of the repetitive dynamics that can motivate people to act in certain ways. That’s where a lot of my work, which examines the interface of cognitive and motivational explanations of depression, fits in.” He also appreciates the department’s “strong background in empirical research” and “open and inclusive consideration of a wide variety of philosophical ideas.”
Winer’s recent publications similarly display a range of approaches to the study and treatment of depression and anxiety. He became interested in these conditions as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Chicago and continued that research as an assistant then associate professor at Mississippi State University (MSU). There, he and the students in his Emotional Processes and Experimental Psychopathology Lab focused on finding cognitive and affective predictors of distress and dysfunction. As Principal Investigator, he has received more than $1 million in grants for this research from the National Institute for Mental Health to investigate Reward Devaluation Theory — research that led the Association for Psychological Science to name him a 2018 APS Rising Star.
Understanding Reward Devaluation Theory
Reward Devaluation Theory (RDT) explores why and how some depressed individuals come to avoid potentially hopeful and positive information. Research into depression has “focused primarily on negative things that you might be threatened by or have difficulty disengaging from,” says Winer. “There’s been less of an emphasis on how positive information is processed. It’s been known that depressed individuals may not have the same normative bias toward positive information” or rewards as people who are not depressed.
What RDT and Winer’s reanalyses of data show is that “it’s not just a lack of ‘normal’ value or valuation of positivity, however. [Some depressed people] seem to avoid potential positivity. Think of it like The Shawshank Redemption — it’s not that I’ve given up on hope; hope is a dangerous thing,” explains Winer. Many societal factors could feed these biases toward positivity, and Winer says that almost infinite considerations of culture and context can inform why persons come to develop these biases.
At NSSR, Winer is launching a lab with NSSR graduate students as well as New School undergraduates to continue to examine RDT and the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that can help explain how and why some individuals develop these types of biases toward positivity and hopefulness. He’s also looking into treatment choice — why individuals do or do not go into treatment for anxiety and depression — and a more general, endemic fear of positivity and hopefulness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are trying to decide when to trust and hope again as we continue to resume normal life after the worst of the pandemic. I’m excited to see how understanding of reward devaluation will help inform how we all can fully let positivity back into our lives again.”
One of the methodological approaches Winer sees value in for RDT research is network analysis, which can help show how symptoms of psychopathology connect to one another. “It might be that people have an essence inside of them that is depression,” he explains. “But it might also be the case that the complex connectivity of symptoms over time forms a feedback loop that is the depression for that individual person.” Winer gives an example of a hypothetical person with depression who stops sleeping regularly due to a loss in that person’s life. That lack of sleep makes them not enjoy things anymore, which leads them to be sad, which perpetuates the lack of sleep. But even when the loss goes away, the feedback loop keeps functioning, and that person remains depressed. In particular, Winer will be using temporal network analysis — looking at how networks organize and change over time — to look at clinical and experimental datasets to see how they connect and “pulse.”
Outside of the lab, Winer is excited to step into teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. An award-winning professor several times over at MSU, Winer is teaching Systems of Psychotherapy, an undergraduate course at Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts, in Fall 2021. In Spring 2022, he’ll be teaching a core Clinical Theory and Technique: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy course to graduate students at NSSR and Emotions to undergraduates at Lang.
“Teaching is, to a large extent, why I got into this business,” Winer closes. “I love being able to teach both at a school for social research and also in a liberal arts college, and to be able to engage with critical theory and critical considerations of psychology in a progressive atmosphere.”
On a sunny October afternoon in 2021, Washington Square Park was filled with just about everyone in New York City. Among them were around 25 New School students, their professor, and their guide.
Nearly 400 years ago, the area looked very different. Twenty-eight different farmsteads filled that land, all owned by Black individuals — New York City’s first Black neighborhood. Yet the park today bears no record of this history, nor that of the people who lived there.
That erasure, said Kamau Ware, is not accidental. Ware is an artist, historian, and founder of Black Gotham Experience, an organization dedicated to making “the impact of the African Diaspora missing from collective consciousness as well as the public square.” After a brief introduction, Ware handed each New School student a card bearing the name of a Black person, then asked them to focus on one name: Manuel Trumpeter, a Black farmstead owner. What are the kinds of things that might have been on Trumpeter’s mind? What might he have been feeling, frightened of, excited about as a semi-free Black man in 17th-century New York City?
This empathy-based exercise and subsequent in-depth historical tour of Washington Square Park are integral parts of students’ work in either the “Capitalism and the Settler Colonial Present in New York City” graduate course or “Blind Spots of New York City: Capitalism and Exclusion” undergraduate course, both taught by Benoit Challand, Associate Professor of Sociology.
“This is all very practice-oriented,” says Challand. “The goal is to bring students outside of the classroom and academic, book-centered learning experiences.” In addition to tours with Ware of the park and of the Financial District, students have toured Inwood Hill Park with the Lenape Center and discussed the colonial-era fur trade from the perspective of the Mohawk Nation with the North American Indigenous Center of New York for Culture, Equity, and Economic Justice — all spaces of different kinds of exploitation and erasure.
Developing a Civically Engaged Class
“How can you explain what is capitalism from a historical and sociological perspective?”
During Challand’s first year as a Sociology faculty member at The New School in 2015, he developed a Lang first-year seminar that explored this question via two major commodities, cotton and sugar. As he taught the class, he found that issues around settler colonialism — the replacement of an indigenous population with an invasive settler population — in the U.S.; extraction; land dispossession; and racialization of the other continued to crop up, especially in relation to New York City.
“The big discovery [for me] was to find out how the history of the city is connected to those two commodities all the way to recent times without acknowledging its link with slavery until the 1850s,” he says. This led him to dig deeper into the erasure of past slave rebellions in the city, as well as that of the city’s current large Native American population, and to develop the course in new directions to confront the absence of Black and indigenous people’s memory in New York City landscape, architecture and monuments.
After meeting Ware during a tour in 2017, Challand asked him to lead a tour on erasure of the city’s Black history for the Lang seminar. Following positive reviews, Challand brought Ware into the course as a partner via a Lang Civic Liberal Arts grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They taught together in 2018 and 2020, and now again in 2021.
New this year is a version of the course at the graduate level at NSSR. While both courses explore the same content and read the same texts, Challand says that undergraduate students are “more creative in terms of how they express knowledge” while graduate students have a “deeper, more robust engagement with literature” in class discussion and in written assignments. The courses are now supported by a Mellon Periclean Faculty Leader grant, which has allowed Challand to bring in the additional indigenous community partners.
Assisting with the graduate course is Emmanuel Guerisoli, a Sociology PhD student who studies settler colonialism in the U.S. from a legal point of view. His Teaching Assistant position is funded by NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, which supports research on New York City and its transformation over the centuries by migration.
Bridging Sociology and History
At both levels, the courses draw deeply upon both history and sociology. At the graduate level, it is one of several Sociology courses that focus on the struggles of peripheral peoples in countries both of the global core and the periphery (read more about the Critical Perspectives in Democratic Anticolonialism project).
Says Challand, “Both disciplines concur on locating capitalism in Atlantic trade, which includes the slave trade. Mercantilism is replaced by capitalism, a new economic and ideological system rooted in exploitation and destruction of native populations….History means an understanding of historical episodes, a past-dependent development. The landscape of New York City is a byproduct of what colonial New York City was in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is continuity and rupture. And from the sociological perspective, capitalism rebundles social relations.”
Although course material temporally ends in the mid-1800s, course discussions address contemporary topics. “We try to look at the legacies, and how racial capitalism and its hierarchies have evolved and developed with time,” says Guerisoli. “In the final sections of the course, it was impossible to ignore what happened last year [uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police] and Black Lives Matter, and the effect that it had. This is completely influenced by what happened in colonial times.” Discussion topics include the complicity of academia in erasure, pushback against monuments to colonial leaders, reparations, and the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the U.S.
“I’m very happy to see the students very engaged both academically, theoretically, but also politically,” says Guerisoli, who has been a TA for a previous Sociology class taught by Challand, “and that we’re able to discuss what are very much provocative topics that are not easy to engage with and don’t have any easy answers or simple answers.” He cites a recent debate around the discourse of nativism; that indigenous people might use nativism to counter settler colonial practices, but that white supremacists use the same discourse against migrants.
Melisa Rousseau is a Sociology MA student who registered for the course without much prior academic knowledge of the topics it addresses. But with race as a primary area of focus for her studies, the course seemed like a great fit. “I really didn’t even know about what settler colonialism was,” she says. “I signed up because I had taken Benoit’s class before, and he and Emma together are a really good team, so I knew it would be a good course.”
The course has not only offered her new perspectives on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans; it’s also reframed how she thinks about race, space, and place, and New York City itself.
“The course has significantly changed the way I see New York City,” she says. “I’m not just walking through Washington Square Park anymore, right? It’s got a different meaning now. The same with Wall Street or City Hall. I never realized that interred a block away from City Hall are up to 20,000 skeletons [of Black individuals]. Now when I walk in Lower Manhattan, it has a different meaning.”
And she appreciates the multifaceted aspects of the course. “We’re able to integrate what we’ve learned on the tour with what we’re also learning in the readings,” she says. And on top of that, we’re keeping journals [which integrate] what we’re reading and our experience on the tours.”
Ware’s October tour ends outside a building just east of Washington Square Park where, in 1911, nearly 150 Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A small plaque on the building commemorates the tragedy, one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history and a major turning point in labor history and occupational safety. He notes the differences between the site and the nearby park in terms of public memory and erasure. But one parallel remains: the extra work those “othered” must do — ideally with a wide base of support but often alone — to fight for visible change in a society built on their erasure.
The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Nicola Marcucci as the Fall 2021 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Marcucci is a sociologist working in critical theory, intellectual history, the philosophy of social sciences, modern social and political thinking. He is member of the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, member of the board of the Teoria Critica della Società seminar at the University Milano-Bicocca in Italy, and associated with the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds. As part of an ongoing project investigating the sociological redefinition of critical faculties—reason, will, and judgment, Marcucci is finalizing a first volume on Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and the birth of classical sociological theory in France and Germany.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus.Learn more about Speier here.
Prof. Marcucci talked with Research Matters about what he’s looking forward to this year, what needs to be interrogated about the status of critique between sociology and modern philosophy, the importance of intellectual history to reconstruct the relation between the two, the legacy of the French school of sociology, the NSSR archives and the role of French refugees.
RM: What was your path to becoming a Hans Speier Professor?
NM: Having spent some years as a visiting researcher at NSSR in the past, some colleagues knew my work in both the departments of Philosophy and Sociology. I received an offer to teach from the Sociology Department two years ago; I accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, but I had to refuse at the very last minute because I didn’t receive my visa in time. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the department of Sociology (to which I would like to express my gratitude) — and last year, this opportunity popped up. Long story short, it is very exciting to be here, because of what The New School represents, because I appreciate very much the possibility of teaching here, and because I got the opportunity of making up for the first, lost opportunity I got.
RM: As a visiting research fellow here in 2014-2016, what did NSSR offer to your scholarship? Who did you work with, and what did you develop here?
I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European fellow for three years at EHESS Paris, and during these years I was sponsored by this fellowship to spend two years at The New School. My research concerned Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and their influence in French and German debates on sociological theory from the 70’s of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Chiara Bottici [Associate Professor of Philosophy] invited me to NSSR (2014-2016), because of our common interests in Spinoza and critical theory. During my stay I also collaborated with Omri Boehm [Associate Professor of Philosophy], organizing an international conference titled: “Spinoza and Kant: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Politics.” Meanwhile I continued developing the sociological side of my research and I organized an international conference titled: “Durkheim & Critique”. The contributions of this conference have been recently published in an edited volume.
RM: What made you want to return to teach further at NSSR? How does NSSR fit your ethos as an academic?
NM: I’ve been working as a researcher for many years. After obtaining my doctoral degree in history and sociology of modernity in Pisa, I taught and I researched in Berlin (Centre Marc Bloch and Humbodlt University) Paris (Sciences Po and EHESS) and Milan (Milano-Bicocca), and finally I arrived in New York. This, I think, says something about me and about why The New School is a desirable place for what I do; the international background of my research, and the interdisciplinary nature of it, are both reasons why I feel welcomed here. Moreover, I understand my work as a researcher as a way to critically engage with moral and political issues of the world I belong to, and The New School has supported intellectuals’ public engagement since its very origin.
During my stay as Hans Speier Professor, I’m working towards the publication of a “Durkheim Companion” that will be out next year, and I intend to finalize the research that I began in 2014 in the Philosophy department. As mentioned, this work consists of a reconstruction of the French and German classical sociological theory in the light of the fact that, since the late 18th century, an alternative emerged that opposed Spinozan to Kantian philosophies. This alternative, since the last decades of the 19th century, influenced the sociological debate and Durkheim’s search for an autonomous understanding of human reason, in part recovering the legacy of modern philosophy and in part breaking with it. My reconstruction ends with the way Durkheim and its school understood the sociological break with modern philosophy, offering an explanation of how it intended to overcome both Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. This relation of continuity and rupture — the relation of philosophy and sociology — which my book intends to reconstruct, is something that can be fully granted only if we accept to move within an interdisciplinary dimension guaranteed and supported by intellectual history. Hopefully this research will be finalized by the end of the spring when I’m planning to present its results in Argentina, France, and Italy.
RM: In your writing, you flesh out the more nuanced political and methodological work of Émile Durkheim, regarded as the founder of sociology. What, broadly, do you think is misunderstood about Durkheim’s contributions to the discipline?
Durkheim intended to emancipate sociology from the legacy of philosophical Enlightenment (in the form that this took in Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism) by offering a sociological theory of the social constitution of the categories of the understanding. I think only another author had a similar ambition in the history of modern social theory: G. W. F. Hegel. To put it straightforwardly, I think that the contribution of Durkheim and its school — starting from completely different epistemological presuppositions and obtaining completely different results, but sharing a similar ambition to the one of Hegel’s social theory — should be taken seriously and considered as a different and somehow alternative paradigm in order to figure out what social critique is and could represent. In this last regard, I think the volume that I recently edited, Durkheim & Critique, contains a chorus of different voices intervening in this regard and the beginning of an answer to your question.
The relevance of Durkheim in regard to social critique is broad and requires some clarification though beyond the few things that I just said. What has been misunderstood, silenced or undeveloped in the past is the fact that there is something in Durkheim’s project that could be easily understood in the light of critical theory and not only for the reasons that I mentioned before. Since its beginning, critical theory concerned the attempt to think about the relation between philosophy and sociology, understanding their cooperation as a form of engagement which allowed theory to actively and reflexively participate in the quest for social justice immanent to modern societies. For this reason, a main polemical target of critical theory has been represented by positivism, a conception of social science shaped on the model of natural sciences, reclaiming an understanding of objectivity based on the frontal opposition of science and reality.
In my view, Durkheim has been misleadingly associated with this kind of positivism. Instead, we should focus on why he understood the rise of sociology as being historically and politically determined by the fact that philosophical critique appeared to run empty when confronted with the systemic injustice of modern societies. Sociology appeared to him as a viable solution to make sense of the same quest for social justice, immanent to modern societies, that years after, critical theory intended to follow, in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. The reasons that made Durkheim invisible in this respect have to do, I think, with the influence that Max Weber had in the project of critical theory and with the fact that his neo-Kantian epistemology consented to maintain a Marxian conception of history while the revolutionary expectations of the working class were declining. While Durkheim has been brought back by Jurgen Habermas, this, in part, happened in the light of a reception of his thought that reduced the critical and political ethos of the French sociologist’s theory by inserting it in a normative theory of justice that, de facto, was opposed to the main assumptions of his intellectual scholarship.
In the last decades though, a new reception of Durkheim has been developing, showing that, far from being the kind of conservative and positivist thinker that many had considered him to be, his epistemological project consisted in attempting to show how sociology represented a way to liberate social critique from the false alternative of liberalism and nationalism, resituating it in the field of democratic socialism. Many friends and colleagues in the LIER (my group of research at the EHESS) such as Bruno Karsenti, Cyril Lemieux and Francesco Callegaro, have made significant steps in this direction long before me. Durkheim’s epistemological project seems unintelligible without situating its critical ethos within those socialist ideals to which it intended to contribute by offering them a new form of reflexivity. Durkheim’s main ambition had consisted in enabling new possibilities for social and political action without pretending to define the political agenda of socialism. This relation of sociological critique and democratic socialism appears compelling to me today, because we live in an era characterized by public debates alternatively presenting liberalism and nationalism as inescapable ideological presuppositions, standing in the background and most often blocking our attempts to promote social change.
To escape this dramatic impasse of social critique, philosophy has lately appeared to be more and more seduced by the temptation of fully abdicating from its relation to social sciences in name of some radical social ontology that obliterates all the empirical and historical observations provided by sociology without which, in my view, no viable understanding of human institutions can be achieved. Today, to bring politics back — the message that an entire generation from Hannah Arendt to Claude Lefort defended — entails bringing back social sciences in the project of a critical theory of society It looks like the Durkheimian sociological school could help us in this regard.
RM: One of your projects here will be to do archival work around sociologist and jurist Georges Gurvitch. Why are you planning on returning to his work? How does Gurvitch stand out amongst the scholars of the University in Exile at The New School? How did the climate of The New School influence Gurvitch and his sociological work?
If, for the reasons that I briefly sketched out, the Durkheimian school has to be associated with the realm of democratic socialism and, I would like to add, with a reflection on the epistemic consequences of the “discovery” of social rights, this intent went in part lost in the generation following the first World War. (However, it survived in some fundamental but isolated intellectual trajectories such as the one of Marcel Mauss.) Georges Gurvitch participated in a second period bringing new energies and ideas in the debate. When he arrived in France in the late ‘20s he had already participated, before leaving his country, in the germinal experience of the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, and he became a specialist in German phenomenology. Once in Paris he found, in the Durkheimian tradition, an intellectual framework to think through the relation between social rights and legal pluralism. This legacy shaped his vision and represents the background of some of its most important works written in the ’30s. When Gurvitch arrived in New York and participated in establishing the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes [a “university-in-exile” for French academics located at NSSR], this was his intellectual horizon.
Meanwhile in the ‘30s, a younger intellectual seemed confronted as well with the task of renewing the legacy of Durkheimism. His name was Claude Levi-Strauss. Around the beginning of the ‘40s, escaping Vichy France, both intellectuals came to NSSR. One of the things I’m doing in my actual research is trying to find some elements in the archives of The New School (I would like to thank Jenny Swadosh for her precious and generous help) and other archives (Yale and Rockefeller Foundation) concerning both Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss during their New York years, from ’40 to ‘45.
When Gurvitch arrived at NSSR, his work appears in full continuity with the political, critical, and socialist legacy of the Durkheimian school after the First World War. He originally elaborated this legacy and presented it to the American public, offering his defense of social rights and legal pluralism in different articles published in major journals. In the same years, Levi-Strauss was notably becoming familiar with the theories of Roman Jakobson, and his contribution to the debate on the French Sociological School seems to be already characterized by elements that, after the war, gave the tone to the structuralist turn in sociology and anthropology. In the same years, during his stay at NSSR, Gurvitch composed a sort of political manifesto, The Declaration of Social Right, hoping it would have contributed to the process of constitution-making of the French Fourth Republic.
Once back in France after the war, Gurvitch becomes professor of sociology at La Sorbonne, and Lévi-Strauss becomes the Lévi-Strauss we know: The Elementary Structures of Kinship is firstly published in 1949. Starting from the ‘50s, their intellectual collaboration ends and their relation is characterized by a growing disappointment and mutual criticism. Gurvitch did not succeed in renewing the Durkheim legacy in the way he probably had wished and the political expectations that nourished his ‘manifesto’ were not satisfied. His later works appear less interesting, mostly attempting to create an ambitious but very formal synthesis between his sociology and the Marxian tradition. There are no reasons to interrogate the success of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual project on the other hand, but the consequence of the transition to structuralism—as it already appears very clearly in Levi-Strauss’ introduction to Marcel Mauss, published in 1950 and prefaced by Georges Gurvitch himself—excluded some of the main political aspects that instead we have seen characterizing the intellectual and critical ethos of the Durkheimian school. The New School years of Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss represented the last appearance of the critical and political ethos of the French sociological school. NSSR represented the place where a reflection on the political legacy of the French Sociological School appeared before being interrupted and whose critical ambition appears today worth it to be re-explored.
RM: I have one more question I want to ask about teaching! It’s been about a month — how is your graduate Classical Sociology class going? How are you finding the students and discussions?
I’m having a great experience! It’s a great feeling to be physically back as a group of people sharing the same physical space, showing our faces — part of them at least — and discussing together after the full regime of isolation we have been exposed to for one year and a half. Secondly, I’m impressed by the attention and curiosity of many of my students. These two things are often separated. In some cases, students can be attentive but the respect for the authority of the teacher can somehow diminish their capability to perform and autonomously appropriate what is transmitted. In other cases, students’ eagerness to make sense, to intervene and to appropriate what they are learning can prevent them to fully acknowledge the autonomy of a text, its meaning and/or how to make sense of the intention of an author. Many of my students have shown both qualities at once, and for this reason they have taught me a lot.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.