Closure, Transformation, and the Law: NSSR Welcomes Political Theorist Sandipto Dasgupta

Within contemporary political language, a constitution is generally considered a neutral document, one that sets forth fundamental ground rules for how persons and organizations should conduct themselves politically but stands outside of the push and pull of quotidian politics itself. It is also understood as a stable, almost timeless framework that exists outside of the many changes of ordinary political life. Think of the mechanisms for amending itself the US constitution sets out, these emphasize an aspiration to enduring currency. Therefore, most people tend to understand a constitution as both an unbiased arbitrational document and as something essential to moving about effectively in the world.

But Sandipto Dasgupta, the new Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, has a different perspective. A political theorist, he explores the historical relationship between political institutions, like constitutions, and political transformation, taking a broad look at the variable historical composition of political paradigms, from constitutionalism to postcolonialism. His findings challenge some of the most conventional beliefs we have about the connection between revolutionary upheaval and political institutions. As he demonstrates, constitutions are not always the neutral means of closure and containment, but are sometimes the very tools of genuine political transformation.

A Global Academic Journey

A native of Calcutta, Dasgupta began his career with tentative intention of become a lawyer. He graduated from the National Law School of India University, the country’s first such school, and worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of India. During his studies, Dasgupta discovered that he was especially curious about the theoretical underpinnings of the law — the historical and philosophical assumptions that were as fundamental to the legal curriculum as they were unexamined. “I wanted to look at the legal language more critically and from a distance,” Dasgupta said.

This interest led him on a global academic journey, first to Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in Political Science in 2014. “New York was very fundamental in shaping me as an intellectual subject,” he says. “I was there in very interesting political times [Occupy Wall Street], all these new journals, people talking to each other. I was a shaped as a scholar by these moments outside the classroom and the library, as much by anything that happened within them. It also helped me, I think, move beyond India, linking my questions up with those that resonated globally.”

Dasgupta also studied at NSSR as part of the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium, sitting in on Politics classes with Andrew Arato and Andreas Kalyvas, and a class on Hegel with Jay Bernstein, which he remembers as going late into the night and often continuing at a nearby bar.

Dasgupta then moved on to postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at the British Academy in London. “It says something about the postcolonial world that its best archive is actually in the British Library,” he jokes. He has spent the past three years back home in Delhi, teaching a range of course on political ideology and political economy at Ashoka University.

Excited to return to New York, Dasgupta views the NSSR Politics Department as the perfect fit for a scholar such as himself, one interested in “interrogating the foundations and the assumptions that are built into the discipline,” he says. “The kind of political theory I do is critical and political. It tries to make political theory speak to the political life of the present. I always felt that The New School is the perfect place for that kind of approach.” This summer, he’s busy planning for  “The Political Theory of Decolonialization,” the first course he’ll teach to NSSR graduate students.

The Role of Constitutions

He’s also been busy wrapping up his first book, Legalizing the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). In it, Dasgupta returns to the accepted idea that constitutions act like skeletons for polities, providing a rigid structure that firm up the basic functions of administration and jurisprudence alike. He claims that this view narrowly focuses on and generalizes from a specific period of constitutional writing, ignoring other roles constitutions might play, especially in bringing to life the political institutions of a state.

For example, we tend to look to and study the constitutions of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than the ones that were written in the 20th. In those earlier centuries, the story of constitutions “is the story of closure,” Dasgupta says. “There’s upheaval and revolution and it comes to an end with a constitution. Constitutions end revolutions.” In the 20th century, however, constitutions may do exactly the opposite: They transform, they kick off revolutions. For the newly decolonized states of the twentieth century, Dasgupta says that “the revolution was in the future. We have a constitution through which we can do the revolution, transforming the colonial subject into a postcolonial citizen.” In this second kind of constitution, the distinction between the time of revolution and the time of law is undone, and the two meld together. In other words, these post-colonial states challenge our received notions of constitutions as instruments of order and closure, instead exploring their possibilities and limitations as instruments of revolutionary transformation.

Dasgupta has also explored the history of institutionalizing postcolonial visions of freedom. “When you think about it, the 20th century is this great moment of freedom, or at least of an image of liberation,” Dasgupta says, citing the examples of postwar decolonization. “The question that interests me is, what happens right after? How do we move from an image of freedom to institutions that help us to build that world?”

In one of his articles, Dasgupta takes Gandhi as a vehicle for exploring that broad question of transition into independence. “This is the paradox: he is this enormously influential figure both within and outside India’s anti-colonial movement, and yet almost none of his visions of postcolonial India come to fruition.” In this sense, Gandhi embodies a tension that all postcolonial state leaders must deal with: What does independence look like, institutionally, if it isn’t a replica of the European state model?

In Dasgupta’s view, the first three decades after decolonization have witnessed a shift from idealistic potential to a gradual disappointment. This perspective leads him to yet another question: how to construct an account of decolonization that is alive to both its expansive aspirations of emancipation as well as the eventual exhaustion of hope. Gandhi can be seen as case study in what happens when the vision fails to find a way to implement itself, when the anticolonial spirit fails to translate itself into a postcolonial one.

These sorts of issues, along with other recurring questions that newly independent states and leaders grapple with, will be explored in Dasgupta’s Fall 2019 course. “I’m am really looking forward to being at The New School, being back in New York,” he said. “What I look forward to about these graduate seminar is the opportunity to explore interesting questions together with the students. From the conversations I had with my colleagues and some of the students already, I believe that it will be an exciting journey!” he says.

NSSR Faculty Win Major 2019-2020 Research Grants

From the many celebrations and reflections that accompany the centennial of The New School throughout 2019, on thing has become abundantly clear: Many of the issues early New School scholars sought to address continue to be central to our thinking today. From the effects of borders and migration on refugees to rising fascism and anti-democratic politics, concerns about capitalism to growing inequality, today’s New School for Social Research faculty members are launching bold new investigations into these pressing questions, and several have won major grants to carry out this important work for the coming academic year.

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics, has been named a 2019-2020 Fellow-in-Residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She focuses her attention on the ways that public meanings define the problems that the polity understands itself to share, as well as the range of choices that citizens perceive to be before them. Drawing primarily from newspapers and social media, she examines public discourse and its central practical importance to democratic politics.

While at the Safra Center, Woodly will be working on two book projects: #BlackLivesMatter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, which explores the ways that social movements re-politicize public life in times of political despair, and What We Talk About When We Talk About the Economy, which examines public discourse and opinion concerning what “the economy” means to different stakeholders in American politics. While there, she will also participate in the Safra Center’s Working Group on Political Economy and Justice.


Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, has been named a 2019-2020 Russell Sage Visiting Fellow. Ticktin is currently at work on two related book projects: a short book on innocence as a political concept, and how it produces an unending search for purity; and a book on the way border wall technologies travel, both transnationally and cross-species, with the goal of engaging with speculative practices, and reimagining the idea of bordering. Over the past year, Ticktin has been co-director (co-PI) of the Mellon Foundation-funded Sawyer Seminar series on Imaginative Mobilities, in which an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and graduate students from the fields of design and social sciences reframed debate on the nature, purpose, and futures of borders.

As a Russell Sage Visiting Fellow, Ticktin will continue work on her second book project. She will investigate the resurgence of border walls as an anti-immigrant tool in the context of rising right-wing and nationalist populisms, concentrating on the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Drawing from legal, historical, and ethnographic research, she aims to demonstrate how border walls paradoxically rely on transnational and cross-species technologies, ideas, and economies. She will analyze how the materials and technologies involved in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall offer insight into the politics of borders and how rethinking border design has implications for immigration policies.

Both Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History, have been named 2019-2020 members of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Molnar’s research explores the intersections of culture, politics, social change and knowledge production with special focus on urban culture and transformations of the built environment. She has written about the relationship between architecture and state formation in socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe, the post-1989 reconstruction of Berlin, and the new housing landscape of postsocialist cities. Her latest book, Building the State: Architecture, Politics and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe (Routledge) received the Mary Douglas Prize for the Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the American Sociological Association in 2014.

At the IAS, Molnar will continue researching and writing her new book, tentatively titled Marketing Radical Nationalism in Contemporary Hungary, which she began while receiving a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. The book explores how markets can serve as crucial vehicles for promoting new interpretations of national identity and circulating nationalist symbols, thereby fostering popular support for nationalist radicalization.

Ott specializes in economic history and political history. Aiming to advance critical histories of capitalism, she investigates how financial institutions, practices, and theories influence American political culture and how, in turn, policies and political beliefs shape economic behavior and outcomes. She was the 2016-2018 co-director of the Robert H. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (2011).

At the IAS, Ott will work on her latest book project. Wealth Over Work: The Origins of Venture Capital, The Return of Inequality, and the Decline of Innovation examines the history of venture capital as an idea, as a form of investment, and as a politically-mobilized industry. In the half-century after start of the Great Depression, beliefs about the centrality of venture capital for innovation, jobs, and growth shaped economic policy and corporate behavior while gradually transforming U.S. financial system. Concerns about venture capital – voiced from all across the political spectrum – slowly steered American political culture in a neoliberal direction, in favor of investors and the wealthy.  The result was the less innovative and far more unequal economy that we live with today.

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.

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.