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 2020 recipients of our MA Project Grants and the Dean’s Conference Fund.
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 2020 recipients of the MA Project Grants are:
An NSSR-Parsons collaboration, Disaster Mag will focus on unemployment in its second issue through 15 essays and various artwork.
Alexa Mauzy-Lewis (Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism)
Future Subject Matter: Selected Texts of Kato K Trieu
The recent passing of Kato K Trieu (MA Liberal Studies ’20) left his peers with a body of work to study, publish and disseminate. Future Subject Matter will collect Kato’s work in a book-bound copy, and cover the themes of gender and sexuality, trans theory, mind and embodiment, science and technology studies, and comparative literature.
Leo Zausen (Liberal Studies)
Critical Race Theory Group
This reading group will help Sociology students link their research and knowledge into critical perspectives on race, discuss elements of race at different times and locations in history, and analyze how theorists and scholars comment on issues of race.
Melisa Rousseau (Sociology)
Anthropology & Design Exhibition (ADX) Student Working Group
This group of Anthropology students — who have either a background in design and/or an interest in exploring the fertile intersection of anthropology and design both theoretically and methodologically — meets weekly to develop programming around an inaugural conference in April 2021 (see more below).
Oscar Fossum, Lilah Doris, Leila Lin, Elif Geçyatan, Clemente de Althaus (Anthropology)
Gestalt-themed Mini Speaker Series and Events
Max Wertheimer brought Gestalt psychology to The New School, and the university became a center of Gestalt theory within the US. This project will host interdisciplinary events with speakers working in the Gestalt tradition.
Hong B. Nguyen and Mariah Woodruff (Psychology), Leonhard Victor Sedlmayer (Philosophy)
This podcast series will highlight the voices and work of people with underrepresented identities in philosophy and academia — specifically New School PhD students and faculty whose research focuses on diversity, feminism, gender studies, and fields of study that are often not categorized as belonging to the traditional Western canon.
Giuseppe Vicinanza, K. Eskins, Madison Gamba, Emre Turkolmez (Philosophy); Olivea Frischer(Parsons School of Design); Andres Volkov (College of Performing Arts)
LGBT COVID-19 Ethnography & Mental Health Impacts
An ethnographic and psychological survey investigating the social behavior, community resilience, and mental health of the LGBT community in New York City in comparison with cishet residents. With the effects of the COVID-19 in mind, such a project will demonstrate the impact of removing physical community spaces on risk behavior and loneliness.
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 2021, the Dean’s Conference Fund will support the following NSSR student-run conferences:
Future Ontologies: Afrofuturism and Indigenous TEK
In response to the worldwide need to elevate discourses that contribute to a decolonial turn in academia and culture in general, the Liberal Studies Student Association is planning a conference that centers the voices of marginalized communities, specifically BIPOC. Taking Afrofuturism as a starting point, this conference will explore its history and contemporary manifestations in order to start a conversation with indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).
Tentative date: First week of April 2021
Silvana Alvarez Basto, Nicholas Travaglini, José Luna, Katrina Schonheyder, Walter Argueta Ramírez (Liberal Studies)
Animalhouse: Animals and Their Environs
The relationship between animals and their environs has become one of the paramount political concerns of our time. While a particular urgency motivates current discussions of animate life and its habitat, examining this relationship has yielded significant philosophical development throughout the 20th century. This conference will question if and how philosophy’s treatment of animals and their environs can help us make sense of our current situation.
ADX presents NSSR and Parsons grad student works at the intersection of Anthropology and Design. Topics may include applied anthropology, community-oriented design, design research, material studies, critical design and creative technologies. ADX will include three parts: workshops; a VR exhibition with live discussions; and a website portfolio with recordings of the main event.
Tentative dates: April 2021: Virtual exhibition of student works
May 2021: An edited recording of the exhibition, and an analysis of Anthropology and Design based on data from attendees and their projects
Oscar Fossum, Lilah Doris, Leila Lin, Elif Geçyatan, Clemente de Althaus (Anthropology)
Decolonizing Birth and Mental Health
This conference focuses on the enduring impact of colonization on birth practices in the United States. Topics include the medicalization of pregnancy and birth; erasure of indigenous practices and tribal health care practices, ethnoracial disparities in maternal mental health and mortality, anti-racist psychological and medical models of care, the importance of amplifying BIPOC birth practitioners as doula activists, LGBTQ + inclusive reproductive healthcare, and more.
Tentative date: October 2021
Koret Munguldar, Hillary Litwin, Deniz Kocas, Ellen Yom, Lindsey Myers (Psychology)
Human Considerations: rethinking space habitats
Address approaches to thinking and designing space habitats, and sketch founding ideals for a more just and equitable approach to exploring outer space. From the architectural and engineering questions of livability and survivability, to the artistic and sociological considerations of enjoyability, the conference will host a series of speakers and two panels in an attempt to re- imagine the scope of what is at stake when we think about leaving earth.
In February 2020, during “those gray days before the pandemic struck,” a new interdisciplinary student group emerged at The New School for Social Research (NSSR). Affectionately nicknamed “Space Squad” or sometimes “that weird space thing,” New School Policy and Design for Outer Space (NS-PDOS) examines the dynamics and distribution of egalitarian models of governance and design in all aspects of space exploration, areas that are frequently overlooked and under-researched in space studies at large. Specific areas of focus include space habitat governance, economy, existential risk, communications & information theory, and bioastronautics.
Asking the Right Questions
The founders of NS-PDOS — Weston Finfer, Rae Rosenthal Boehm, and James Boyd, all NSSR Liberal Studies MA students; Collin McClain, a student in the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students at the Schools for Public Engagement; and Dalia Amellal, from Parsons’ Theories of Urban Practice MA program — met in Post-Planetary Design, an interdisciplinary course at Parsons School of Design taught by Ed Keller, a former Associate Professor. “So many of the questions placed in that class spilled over into everything else we wanted to keep doing,” Finfer says, “so we were like, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’”
One of the fundamental questions that NS-PDOS inherited from Post-Planetary Design is that of scale. How do we think on a microscopic level? Conversely, how do we think on a planetary level? Keller’s September 2020 lecture for NS-PDOS’s launch event, “The Cosmopolitical Gesture — Coordination, Recursivity, and Universal Models,” (embedded below) built on this: “How might we design across a range of different scales and link those design moves and analytical moves back to universalist models?”
NS-PDOS has adopted the strategy from the class of subverting questions to reframe problems of development on Earth and beyond. McClain explains, “One of the things I took from Ed’s class and try to bring to NS-PDOS is using space, using science fiction, and cosmopolitics, to think about geopolitics and think about very earthly issues with a new perspective, but also to consider how we get [beyond Earth], because if we don’t handle issues here on Earth, we can’t get to these eventual futures that we dream of and work towards.” Recalling a class in which Keller coupled footage of burning oil fields with the question “What does oil want?,” Rosenthal Boehm adds that this question, “what does a thing want?” has become her go-to in exploratory conversions, because it ”puts us face-to-face with the limits of our ontological frames and invites us to push beyond them.”
A Social Perspective on Space Exploration
Much of the existing scholarship on space exploration contains thorough design and engineering plans, but doesn’t leave room for error or for the texture of human experience. McClain gives two examples: the assumption that agriculture will thrive as long as we bring the right crops and select out pests, and proposals about governance that do little to address the skewed power dynamic of a governing body controlling the most basic elements of survival —food, water, and even air. Part of NS-PDOS’ work is calling those assumptions into question and seeking radical solutions.
NS-PDOS is a chapter of the international organization “Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).” SEDS has historically focused on engineering, technology, and space design, but NS-PDOS brings a different perspective to space exploration by taking social research as their primary mode.
Nick Travaglini, also a Liberal Studies MA student and a core member of the group, says “one of the interesting ways that we try to differentiate ourselves and distinguish ourselves is through making sure that we are very explicitly focused on aspects of the social — coming out of NSSR, we want to make sure social research plays a key role.” In fact, NS-PDOS is at the cutting edge of SEDS’ movement toward incorporating the humanities. The theme of SpaceVision, SEDS’ 2020 international conference, was “Beyond Earth: Humans as an Interplanetary Species.” As part of the conference, Travaglini led a panel discussion called “STEM to STEAM,” about incorporating the arts into space studies.
The conversation brought Travaglini back to questions Keller raised in his NS-PDOS opening lecture: “Suppose we find life in space. How do we think about the dynamics that may play out between humanity and/or other species that we bring into space, away from earth, when we interact with whatever other forms of life may be out there?”
One way to approach these questions, the group proposes, is to take seriously not only hard research, but also speculative writings and films about space, like the 2016 film Arrival. “We need to look at these works and ask, ‘What does this tell us about society now? What does this tell us about changes we can make if we don’t like the speculative futures that may come out of this?’” Travaglini says.
Building a Group in a Pandemic
NS-PDOS’s inaugural meeting — the only time they’ve met in person — was March 10, 2020. Students built NS-PDOS amid a lockdown, working to create relationships and develop a routine. “I know that when I see something coming up in the [NS-PDOS] group chat, it’s going to be something good to discuss this week,” Finfer said. “When we all sign in on Wednesday at 6 PM, we’re going to have a lot to talk about, and that becomes an exciting thing to look forward to.” Over the summer, NS-PDOS members created two working groups, and core membership has grown to 25 students.
The Future Ontologiesworking group challenges the colonialist and white supremacist thinking that underlies much of the scholarship on space exploration. Rosenthal Boehm, a core member of the group, explains: “In Future Ontologies, we…try to imagine what could we possibly think if we were outside of the moment that we are in, with all known data about failed utopian projects or settlements or outsider projects.”
The group turns to critical theory to unravel a legacy within space studies that includes colonialism, capitalism, and even Nazism. Rosenthal Boehm poses the questions: “If we are living in a community where all of our biometrics are collected by the operating system that runs the community, are we still human? But also, is that fascism? What is the relationship between the technological, the material, the individual and the ideological that plays out in a space habitat that has such radically different terms for existence?”
The Cybernetics and Systems Theory working group looks at the concept of systems broadly, and what it means to think in systems. This overlaps with Finfer’s Liberal Studies MA thesis work on cybernetics, algorithmic information theory, and geoengineering. He has particular interest in the concept of Algorithmic Randomness, a limit in computation that makes absolute certainty impossible.
In addition to the working groups, NS-PDOS also runs the Transceiver Speaker Series, which has, to date, featured Keller, Valerie Olson, and Allison Duettmann. The group is also planning two major events for the Spring 2021 semester:
A conference on Space Habitats, which will bring together designers, architects, artists, social theorists, and web designers, and which will also include an interactive web-design element that weaves together several space habitats, with attention to detail and consideration for the human experience.
A conference on Space Laws and Policy. Finfer moderated a panel on the subject at SpaceVision, and hopes this NSSR conference will create a space for more in-depth thought. “ What are the global accords that can help us address planetary scale issues? Our entry into space is such a closed system. It has to be so technically perfect that it doesn’t have room for leaks, errors, entropy, randomness in the same sense that we do on this planet.”
Calling All Space Enthusiasts
NS-PDOS welcomes members from all academic backgrounds and disciplines. Current members includes designers, software engineers, students of Western esotericism and alternative religions, media and culture theorists, and philosophy students. Those interested or curious need not have any background at all in space studies, only need a desire to learn together and an investment in the group’s overall goals.
“We’re interested in bursting open the door to radically new futures,” Rosenthal Boehm says. “Yeah,” adds Finfer. “Basically, we want to change the world.”
For more information or to join NS-PDOS, please visit their website, and follow them on Instagram @newschoolspace and Twitter @nspdos to keep up with upcoming events, like the next installment in the Transceiver Speaker Series.
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.
Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.
Organizing and Political Power
Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?
Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.
I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.
Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.
Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.
Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.
There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.
RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.
DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.
But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase.
RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].
DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.
The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!
I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.
RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?
DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”
One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.
Organizing and Activism on Campus
RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?
DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.
RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.
DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.
Journalism and Democracy
RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?
DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.
I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.
In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.
Movements, Crises, and the Political Future
RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?
DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.
Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.
Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously. This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.
What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.
RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.
DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!
The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.
Via his debut book, Jakes offers a new perspective on Egypt under British occupation— and on the United States today
A history book can reflect the peoples and worlds researched as much as of the world unfolding around its author. As Aaron Jakes, Assistant Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, wrote his first book, archival research brought him through worlds of bureaucrats, peasants, journalists, and spies, as financial crises, civil unrest, revolt, and populism electrified the world around him.
Jakes started working on the book in its first form — his doctoral thesis — in 2007. As he looked at ways that cotton farmers borrowed money in the early 20th century, he couldn’t help but notice parallels with the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In both periods, the growing influence of financial institutions — financialization —characterized political life. “In a moment in which everyone was thinking about finance, it became possible to start thinking about a contemporary moment in which we had parallel discourses of financial and ecological crisis that were treated as though these were completely separate phenomena,” Jakes says. “And so the first cut at the project in light of that present moment was to begin thinking about what it would mean to write an environmental history of a prior moment of financialization.”
Information Access and Control
Digging back more than a century meant Jakes spent years doing research in archives around the world, including Egypt’s National Archives, the United States Library of Congress, and financial archives across England. But gaining access to those materials wasn’t easy.
Egyptian intelligence agencies maintain strict surveillance over the country’s National Archives. Amid a time of water-related conflict with Egypt’s neighbors to the south, Jakes’ application was left in limbo for his use of the word “irrigation”. Jakes enlisted the support of his doctoral supervisor, who then enlisted Egyptian political novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani to pressure the archive director, culminating in a “scathing” op-ed in Akhbar al-Adab, the Egyptian equivalent of the New York Review of Books. The strategy was effective, but Jakes still spent the following three years navigating bureaucratic and technological barriers to information.
“Computerized control actually makes it possible for [the intelligence agencies] to monitor and restrict who can see what, so the cataloging process itself made it possible to just cause huge swaths of documents to ‘disappear’,” Jakes explains. While he was ultimately able to access the resources he needed, he laments that his Egyptian colleagues, without the same degree of foreign institutional support, don’t have the same access — another lasting effect of colonialism.
As his research progressed, a narrative emerged that contradicted the widely-accepted understanding of the British occupation of Egypt, which is rooted in the notion that colonial rule simply consolidated an earlier set of economic arrangements and that ideas about economic life played no significant role in the major movements and struggles of that era. Through his detailed research in both government and banking archives, Jakes pieced together a far more dynamic story about Egypt’s role as a major investment frontier for global finance and about the multiple crises that this process of financialization induced. This new history of capitalism under British rule, in turn, shed new light on the commentaries that Egyptians at the time, from government officials in Cairo to poor peasants in the countryside, offered about the problems they faced. The pages of Egypt’s burgeoning Arabic press likewise became a site for rich and sustained debate about the consequences of the British occupation. And because colonial officials were so emphatic and consistent in their claims about how economic improvement would translate into political legitimacy, developing a rigorous, alternative account of the relationship between economics and politics soon became central concern of Egypt’s growing nationalist movement.
Economism and Trump
Jakes earned his PhD in 2015 and joined The New School’s Historical Studies department shortly after. As he worked on turning his dissertation into his first book, a new event influenced his writing: the election of Donald Trump.
“It was striking that explanations both for the [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon and for Trump’s election often entailed some suggestion that there was a kind of base motive of economic grievance that really explained what was going on,” Jakes says. This is called economism, the attribution of political effects to underlying economic causes.
To this day, economism is often treated as a unique and even defining problem of the left, which, Jakes argues, obscures other important forms. Whereas various thinkers on the left have seen ideas about economic determination as the grounds for a universalist politics, Jakes shows that such claims can just as easily assume a particularistic and exclusionary character. Often entailed in this latter variant of economism is an implicit, racialized judgment about the “kinds of people” who can’t engage in sophisticated politics beyond “base economic motives” — precisely the same rhetoric the British employed to justify their continued occupation of Egypt.
While Egypt’s Occupation never explicitly makes this connection, the parallels are there. Chapter two, for example, highlights the way the British used economism to justify abolishing the system of local elections that Egyptians had long practiced on a village level by arguing that they were not qualified to participate in even the most local politics because of a supposed inability to overcome their economic self-interest.
“If there’s one thing that I really want people to understand,” says Jakes, “it’s that making claims about a kind of strong underlying economic motivation in politics is…often a way of making claims about political disqualification, and actually means that in this country, as in Egypt a hundred years ago, when people are talking about the economy, they often are really talking about race.”
Bringing Research Questions into the Classroom
The day after NSSR spoke with Jakes, he taught a chapter of Egypt’s Occupation in his Lang survey course on Middle Eastern history, marking the first time he’s brought his work directly into the classroom. But teaching has long given him new ways to think about the problems at the center of his research.
“There are moments in which I have actually taught about a topic that I am sort of starting to get my head around,” Jakes said. He often designs courses not necessarily around the research he’s done, but rather based on problems that appear in his work, such as “A World of Disasters: Famine, Plague, and Crisis in Global History,” which he calls “an attempt to…chart a history of concepts and ideas about disasters and the way that meaning had attached to them in different social settings.”
Jakes credits students — especially his NSSR research assistants — as well as faculty across The New School in helping this first book project come to fruition. The university has, he says ”a really special kind of ecology to make serious critical research both possible and fun.” Grants from NSSR, Lang, and NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies helped him complete this work.
It’s fitting, then, that the November 9 launch event for Egypt’s Occupation is a full NSSR affair, with faculty members from Historical Studies as well as Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology joining Jakes to discuss the book as well as the fallout from colonialism and financial occupation. Register for the book launch here.
Photo credit: Nina Subin
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.
Transregional Center for Democratic Studies responds to COVID-19 and explores a path for political recovery
In 2019, The New School began its fall semester like most other years. Students excitedly returned to campus, some walking through its doors for the first time. There was an added layer of exhilaration in the air as the academic year marked The New School’s centennial. The university looked back to its beginnings in 1919 with the founding of its University in Exile — the predecessor to The New School for Social Research — as a safe haven for scholars fleeing Nazi Germany, and a century’s worth of scholarship and community activism. It also began to map its next century amid a current time of unprecedented global turmoil.
Building on this spirit, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) launched its Democracy Seminar amid the October Festival of New. This “worldwide network of democratic correspondence” met to celebrate the centennial as well as to navigate the rise of authoritarianism around the globe and chart a path forward for the preservation and advancement of liberal democracy.
TCDS was founded at The New School for Social Research in the 1990s, inspired by the dismantling of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Since then, TCDS has been dedicated to an interdisciplinary and international examination of democratic theory and practice.
Now, almost a year after that October meeting, the fall 2020 semester looks and feels much different, as does most of daily life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, TCDS has transitioned much of its global programming online, including holding virtual conferences to address pressing issues of the current moment.
Democracy and the Pandemic
Democracy Seminar is a revival and reimagining of the Democracy Seminar of the late 1980s and early 1990s, conceived of by Polish dissident Adam Michnik and brought to life by Michnik; Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gellert Professor of Sociology and Democracy Seminar chair; and Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies and TCDS director. The original Democracy Seminars were semi-clandestine cross-border meetings of pro-democracy intellectual dissidents in East and Central Europe.
Democracy Seminar — also organized by Goldfarb, Matynia, and Jeffrey Isaac, Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington — now fosters worldwide and open discussion among pro-democracy academics, journalists, activists, and more. Originally the group was supposed to reconvene in person this summer for an update on global democracy. Instead, they met over Zoom. On May 20, TCDS held its conference “Democracy & the Pandemic.” In July, they held a public panel: Democracy in a Time of Plague: Challenges & Opportunities in the Struggles Against Authoritarianism, COVID-19 and Racism.
“The Democracy Seminar, our worldwide committee of democratic correspondence, moved to Zoom in May,” says Goldfarb. “We met to urgently consider how the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of authoritarianism are related. There was bad and good news reported from Brazil, China, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. While the virus is being used by authoritarians to strengthen their positions in innovative ways, their opponents are also innovatively working to strengthen their opposition, and we used our conference to compare notes. I think there was a general consensus that the situation is bleak, but not hopeless.”
“The alarming worldwide trend of abandoning democratic rule began at least five years ago, but the pandemic has sharpened its visibility,” says Matynia. “We discussed how the pandemic has provided opportunities for authoritarian regimes everywhere to expand their emergency powers in order to consolidate their peculiar autocratic legalism; but we also asked whether it might — under certain conditions — serve to topple them? The issue that was of particular interest to me was whether the very experience of this borderless occurrence, the pandemic, might provide an opportunity for the rebuilding of cross-national bonds of social solidarity.”
Students across NSSR participated in the discussions. “The Democracy Seminar is a great and meaningful event for me to hear the voices of the international scholars and activists from all over the world and their insightful reflections on the current global pandemic and democratic crisis,” says Sociology MA student Chang Liu, who contributed an article on China and the pandemic.
“The virtual Democracy Seminar was a truly inspiring event for me,” said Malkhaz Toria, a Sociology MA student and coordinator of the Memory Studies Group at The New School. Toria is also an associate professor of history and head of the Memory Studies Center at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. “The distinguishing participants — scholars, journalists, activists, and graduate students from the Americas, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and China — addressed backsliding from democracy exposed by COVID-19. In many countries, we witnessed rising authoritarian rule and right-wing populism before the coronavirus outbreak. However, the already existent pressing issues re-appeared in new lights during the ongoing pandemic. Insightful discussions and debates at the seminar covered an array of topics on how the pandemic is employed by authoritarian governments elsewhere. The Coronavirus revealed disturbing practices of using and abusing power to further impose governmental rules and restrict civil rights while failing to deal with the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19. But panelists also observed democratic ‘innovation’ and ‘awakenings’ to protest and resist these troubling signs of undermining democracy. Fortunately, we also hear strong critical voices from observed countries, and the Democracy Seminar exemplified these sincere hopes for the global defense of democracy.”
In the Same Boat
After a summer of rigorous online programming and intellectual discussion, Goldfarb published an update on the Democracy Seminar, titled “We’re All in the Same Boat.”
“As I wrote over two years ago, when our current group first began to take shape, this is the second iteration of the Democracy Seminar,” wrote Goldfarb “Back then, our immediate situations were strikingly different on each side of the “iron curtain.” Now, we are all in the same boat. The papers prepared for the conference, and our discussions on Zoom all attest to this.” Reflections on TCDS work done this past summer and more ongoing writing can be viewed on Democracy Seminar at Public Seminar.
TCDS is preparing for an online fall 2020 semester and another season of programming via Zoom. They are re-launching the Memory Studies Group at The New School and are looking at summer 2021 for holding their next graduate Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland.Among the first events of the semester, TCDS will host Toria and Mykola Balaban, two former Open Society Foundations (OSF) Global Dialogue Fellows at TCDS (2016). They will talk in an online public panel about their collaborative research on “Narrating Conflicts in Post-Truth Era, Facing Revisionist Russia: Ukraine and Georgia in Comparative Perspective,” supported by a ‘Global Dialogs’ Collaborative Research Grant, funded by OSF (2019-2020).
TCDS plans to continue to grow and adapt, standing up to the ever-evolving threats to liberal democracy.
Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz