Federico Finchelstein on his new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies

In an interview with NSSR students, Finchelstein discusses the changing nature of truth

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History, returns to studying the history of fascism to understand the current political moment. His new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020) is a companion to his 2019 book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press). This latest work explores the new terrain of “post-truth” and “fake news,” while investigating the long lineage of fascist leaders weaponizing lies.

Emmanuel Guerisoli, Sociology and History PhD candidate, and Ihor Andriichuk, Politics PhD student, sat down over Zoom with Finchelstein to discuss the inspiration behind his research and how lies define politics today.

Left to right: Guerisoli and Andriichuk

Listen to the full conversation here:


An excerpt of the edited transcript of the discussion is below

***

On why this book, now 

Guerisoli: I wanted to start with a basic question. You mention at the beginning of the book a series of events like the El Paso shooting and a Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that in a way triggered the idea to write this book. Do you want to talk more about that, why you’re writing this book now?

Finchelstein: Those events happened almost by the end of the writing…This [book] is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists, what makes that fascism successful? One of the issues that makes it successful is that these outrageous ideas become a matter of belief. They spread throughout, motivating a lot of people to not only believe, but also to kill in its name, to exert a lot of violence in its name. So the two examples that you mention, Emmanuel, are rather examples from the end of the story. 

This book is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists

Finchelstein

….After finishing my work, From Fascism to Populism in History, I wanted to return to some questions that I have been addressing before. This started in a way with a conference that I gave in Italy in the mid-2000s. This was like a longer question of why people believe in fascism and why that belief moves beyond empirical demonstration to be a world of fantasy which, ironically, is believed and presented as true.

Andriichuk: You mention at the very end of the book that you actually started working on this book in 2013, after this conference in Italy. In the introduction, you say that fascists and populists are playing in a league of their own. And if to speak from today about 2013 and the period between those dates, is this league increasing or declining?

Finchelstein:  What I mean by that is that all politicians lie. And lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies. I think that is an important distinction. The other part of that distinction is that not only do these people believe in their lies, but also they believe that their lies are the truth. Even reality does not correlate to that belief, hat they do is try to change reality and in the book I present many examples of this.

Lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies.

Finchelstein

One of them is one of the most dramatic assumptions of these beliefs…is the belief in an anti-Semitic lie…that states that Jews are dirty and they spread disease. They are sometimes presented a virus themselves. This is a lie, and hat the Nazis did with this is to create an artificial war in which this lie could turn into a reality. Jews were, of course, not spreading disease per se, but once they were put in horrible conditions, in ghettos and concentration camps, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have sanitary conditions and so on and so forth. They eventually became ill and certainly spread disease, but they only did so not because that was true, but rather because the Nazis turned their lies into situations which became the truth. But that truth itself is a lie because it’s the effect or the outcome of turning lies into reality.

On believing lies

Guerisoli: Something that I found really quite striking from your book is…that you make a difference that lying is something that also liberalism does. But as you just said, liberalism doesn’t believe…

Finchelstein: Or communism.

Guerisoli: Exactly, they don’t believe their own lies. One could…say, well, liberalism or 

communism might be hypocritical, but fascism is a dangerous, sincere type of ideology. The issue is that what you are saying is that also the lying is racist, it is based on this idea that certain communities of people, certain races, certain ethnicities, are superior or have a sacred space in the world. Their leaders appear able to reveal a “sacred old truth” that certain spaces or certain people are sacred and therefore they need to act upon it. And this is, going back to the El Paso and Christchurch shootings, the idea of the replacement theory, that these people believe that migrants or foreigners of people who are not white or Christians are invading and spreading disease, or contaminating, polluting the romanticized idea of their society.

Finchelstein: ….This is exactly what I want to say. It involves racism because fascism historically has been racist. So basically, the idea of truth in fascism, which is, of course, a lie for the rest of us, is a racist lie. It involves demonization, discrimination, and racism. And there uou see the connection between the past and the present. 

And here I would like to stress a distinction between the current populism and far-right populism, the current one…I mean Trump, I mean Bolsonaro, I mean Orban, I mean Narendra Modi and others, is that as opposed to most populists in history — starting with Juan Peron to Silvio Berlusconi or Hugo Chavezmeaning populism left and right — they did not exactly engage with lies in the same way. They were much more pragmatic, closer to the liberalism way of lying. Whereas what Trump and Bolsonaro share, not with the populists in history but with the fascists themselves is the idea, this belief in their own lies. A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump. But Trump himself exposes himself to the disease because he doesn’t wear a mask. There you have a perfect demonstration of how he believes in his own lies. 

I think here you see the connection between populism and fascism in a very particular way. The current populism, the current post-fascism, is very different to the post-fascist populism of the past. It’s different in the sense that it is racist, it glorifies violence and also lies as fascists lie.

That connects them not only with the fascists of the past…but also with the fascists of the present, as these terrorists that you were talking about. So this terrorism involves the same lies and even kill, as the fascists did, for these lies. But these lies are also the lies that are being involved by Trump. I mean, this idea of replacement, this idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s even verbatim, that these terrorists use the same words that Trump is using. So Trump is not responsible for their violence, but is enabling it. I mean, he’s not legally responsible for the violence, but he has a responsibility…He’s spreading the same lies as they do.

A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump.

Finchelstein

On the psychoanalytic history of lying

Andriichuk: ….In the book…you’re stressing that this kind of fascist lie and populist lie is not conscious or intentional. So the person who is lying does not necessarily imply there is a lie. So there is not necessarily a knowledge of this lie.

Finchelstein: Sometimes. 

Andriichuk: So it’s kind of subconscious or a gray area. You approach this matter from a psychoanalytical point, and this matter is revealing. My question would be what those populist or fascist lies might reveal in themselves. 

Finchelstein: So there are a couple of things….From Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, at some level…they recognize that these lies were lies. But even then, the idea was that these lies were servicing the truth, or were enabling the truth, or were at the service of the truth. Sometimes in a minimal way, they were acknowledging to some extent that they were lying for the truth, rendering these in a way smaller than the truth, which was an ideological one, such as racism. Even if this particular person is not spreading disease at the current moment, they insisted on the fact that this person was spreading disease because at the end of the day, what mattered was the big truth, as they understood it. Even Hitler himself will say about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is one of the craziest lies of anti-Semitism and racism…When they asked Hitler about this, Hitler would say, “Even if there are aspects of the Protocols that are not correct or true, they speak to a greater truth.” …. Now, regarding the question of psychoanalysis, as you know from the book, there are different levels of this. The book is about how the fascists understood their lying, but also how anti-fascists at the time were trying to think about the lies of fascism. Among these anti-fascists, many of them were very interested in psychoanalysis, starting, of course, with Freud…but also people like Adorno, people like Mariátegui…Many of them thought that the concepts of psychoanalysis and its approach to the unconscious could help us understand this irrational belief in a form of truth that basically rejects empirical demonstration but have faith as truth in emerging in the inner being. 

Traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist.

Finchelstein

At the beginning of the book, I quote Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. I compare their understanding of the truth, which of course is quite similar. The truth is not being based on empirical demonstration. Perhaps the most explicit among the three of them…is Trump, who says, “Don’t believe in what you are seeing.” How can you not believe in what you are seeing?..This is extremely irrational, and the unconscious has an important role to play… The other level is that…the fascists themselves were quite obsessed with psychoanalysis. There is a chapter on this issue…and why they thought that psychoanalysis was so problematic for fascism.

Guerisoli: …I wanted to point out that this issue connects to the idea of race, because in the end,… the concern is that Freud is attacking the idea of myth, but particularly what is sacred to fascists, which in this sense would be the nation, particularly for fascists. It’s not that Freud is directly attacking fascists, although in the end he will, but that

by attacking the idea of anything that is sacred as something that is not truth, then what fascists are saying is that “Freud is saying this because he’s a Jew and not loyal to the nation and therefore he’s a virus in our own societies. And you see going around not just in Europe, but also in Latin America, with the clerical fascism types, from Mexico to Argentina. 

With the case of Trump, or at least today…you mentioned also that what’s most dangerous is this relationship between conspiracy theories that are believed by a lot of people, but then public officials like Bolsanaro or Trump talk about them as if not facts, but as possibilities that should be addressed and discussed as they have enough evidence of any other type of historical facts. You add to that liberal societies with new media, you have the perfect environment for these to become mainstream, like birther conspiracy and everything else.

Finchelstein: The point here and the problem here is that it’s very hard to discuss lies. Generally, in a rational discussion…arguments need to be supported by facts. Now, if you have on one hand an anti-fascist critique that is supported by facts, and on the other hand pure racist fantasies and xenophobic fantasies, on the other hand there is no middle ground. So that’s why, sometimes,  traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist. Because quite simply, as many of the anti-fascists from the 1970s and 40s pointed out ,on one side, there is the truth and on the other one is fascist lies….you will see sometimes  the New York Times…when Trump says something outrageous, or I will say, Trump says something outrageous about the coronavirus. So Trump says there is a miracle cure; experts disagree, somehow implying there are two sides. There are not two sides. Trump is lying; science tells you otherwise.

COVID-19 and Eastern Europe

In Spring 2020, members of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies (DEES) group produced a series of video essays critically examining how states and societies in Eastern Europe have responded to, and thought about, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19. Each essay draws on long-term, direct engagement with people in the region and with scholarship written in the languages of the region.

The essays and accompanying videos were originally published on the DEES group page and have been reshared here with permission.

DEES on COVID-19: Introduction
Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics and DEES coordinator
Read her essay here


COVID-19 and Hungarian Democracy
Orsolya Lehotai, Politics PhD student
Read her essay here


Hitler and White Asparagus: The Pandemic in Romania
Elisabeta Pop, Politics PhD student
Read her essay here


Russian Governmentality and COVID-19
Dina Shvetsov, Politics PhD student
Read her paper here


Old Wine in New Bottles: Church and State in Georgia in COVID-19
Malkhaz Toria, Sociology MA student
Read his paper here


What’s Wrong with Ukraine’s Response to COVID-19
Masha Shynkarenko, Politics PhD candidate
Read her paper here


Voices from the Polish Borderland
Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical Studies PhD candidate
Read her paper here

NSSR Students Win Competitive 2020-2021 Research Grants

The landscape for academic grants, fellowships, and scholarships — especially for those involving travel and fieldwork — has been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, several NSSR students have won competitive grants for the 2020-2021 academic year to support their dissertations and other research projects

Sara Hassani received a 2020 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, one of just 65 doctoral students in the U.S. to receive the award this year. 

In her dissertation, entitled “Cloistered Infernos: The Politics of Self-Immolation in the Persian Belt,” Hassani investigates the steep and gendered rates of self-immolation plaguing the domestic sphere in the Persian belt countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and mounts a conceptual challenge to common distinctions between self-destructive acts of resistance and suicide in the study of politics. Her research draws on fieldwork, interviews with survivors of self-immolation, nurses, burn surgeons, and civil society actors, as well as 200 qualitative surveys from across the region. Hassani’s work challenges the pathologizing rationalizations characteristic of epidemiological accounts of self-burning and theorizes this lethal and affective form of agency and protest through the lens of marginalized actors who exist within the cultural, political, and socioeconomic realities of apartheid. Her research has been published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

A Politics PhD candidate advised by former NSSR professor Banu Bargu, Hassani cites the department’s Theory Collective as critical to her work. “There’s no better place in the world to study political theory and I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and grow as part of this community,” she says.

In addition to the Mellon/ACLS fellowship, Hassani has also received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship (2017-2019), and an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017). She was also a 2015 fellows at NSSR’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, 


Tatiana Llaguno Nieves received a research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She will use the award to study for one year at Humboldt University of Berlin, where she will work with Rahel Jaeggi, Professor for Practical Philosophy.

A Politics PhD candidate, Llaguno Nieves is advised by Nancy Fraser, Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics. In her dissertation, entitled “Paradoxes of Dependence,” Llaguno Nieves provides a counter-narrative to the dominant language of independence that permeates political theory, defending the philosophical and political value in taking dependence as a starting point and as a general life condition. She looks to Hegel, Marx, feminist theory, and environmental critique to develop an understanding of dependence that is not necessarily opposed to freedom, and argues that it is rather the logic of domination, expropriation and exploitation that pervades our current organization of dependence that must be questioned. 

Llaguno Nieves originally came to NSSR — a place she describes as “a true intellectual home, always stimulating and transforming, as well as the perfect place to work at the intersection of politics and philosophy” — from Spain as a Fulbright Fellow. In addition to the DAAD award, she has also received an NSSR Dissertation Fellowship and a 2019 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award.


Karolina Koziura won a 2020 American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Dissertation Research Grant. Her project, “The Making of Holodomor in State Archives: Narratives of Famine and their Afterlives in Contemporary Ukraine,” seeks to understand the Great Ukrainian Famine as a global event shaped by Cold War-era politics of knowledge production. Koziura plans to use the grant to fund additional archival research in Ukraine.

A PhD candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies, Koziura explores problems of nationalism, spatial transformations, and memory politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Her adviser is Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and her work has appeared in East European Politics and Societies, Culture, and Ukraina Moderna, among others. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR

Koziura has received an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017) and the Integrative PhD Fellowship (2018-2020). Her research has also been supported by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.


Masha Shynkarenko has received the Helen Darcovych Memorial Doctoral Fellowship at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta for her work on nonviolent resistance and community identity formation among Crimean Tatars across the USSR, Ukraine, and Russia.

A Politics PhD candidate, Shynkarenko explores nonviolent resistance, democratic practices, and memory politics in the post-Soviet context. Her advisors are Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics, and Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies. Her dissertation focuses on the nonviolent movement for self-determination of Crimean Tatar indigenous people across USSR, Ukraine, and Russia. 

Shynkarenko is a Research Fellow at the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, doing ethnographic and archival research in Ukraine, and has published essays on Ukrainian politics and the dream politics of Burning Man in Public Seminar. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR and has also received an NSSR doctoral fellowship.


Dina Shvetsov received the American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Understanding Modern Russia Grant for her project, “Property Relations in The Condition of Legal Pluralism in Chechnya: Preliminary Research.”

A Politics PhD student working with Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics, Shvetsov has written on political risk in Central Asia, constitutionalism in Israel, and privatization in Muslim regions of Russia. She is a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR, and her current research focuses on alternative frameworks for analysis of social change in the transition from historical socialism to capitalism.

Shvetsov was a contributing writer and moderator for a project bridging critical social theory and artistic practice at the Vera List Center of Art and Politics, “Dialogues on a Future Communication. (Part 2. Resilience)” by Berlin-based artist Jenny Brockman, and currently teaches sociology and social theory at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. She is also an NSSR Prize Fellow.

NSSR Welcomes Lillian Polanco-Roman to Psychology Department

The new assistant professor brings expertise on mental health disparities in at-risk populations

Lillian Polanco-Roman joins the Psychology department faculty at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in Fall 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. With a background as a clinical psychologist, Polanco-Roman studies how cultural experiences can impact psychopathology, especially in racial minorities and immigrant youth populations. Specifically, her research tackles demographic disparities in suicidal ideation and behaviors in youth. 

Research Matters sat down (digitally) with Polanco-Roman to discuss her research, what drew her to the work, and what she’s looking forward to doing at NSSR.

Elevating ‘Social Research’

“I’m interested in the ‘social research’ part of The New School,” Polanco-Roman says. “Part of its mission includes looking at social justice, social and environmental factors, and how that might impact development. These ideas play a huge role in my research. This focus is something that really aligns with me, with research, with my passion.”

Polanco-Roman studies the ‘casualties of racism’ and how racial and ethnic discrimination influences suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority emerging adults. Culturally related experiences are rarely analyzed in risk assessment for suicide, and she hopes to better understand and highlight the relationships between ethnic identity and depressive symptoms. 

Her path to an academic career grew out of her roots right here in New York City. A first-generation college student born and raised in Brooklyn, Polanco-Roman received a BS in Psychology from Fordham University, an MA in Psychology from Hunter College — where she also taught the subject — and her PhD from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and has counseled in a clinical setting.

Her upbringing played a strong role in shaping her scholarly interests. “Studying and working here made a lot of sense given the population I’m interested in working with, which is ethnic minority youth and immigrant youth,” she says. “They are well represented in New York City and it’s what drew me to this work. I want to give back to my community.”

During her time at CUNY, Polanco-Roman pieced together her own program of study, first finding faculty studying suicide risk in adolescence. She then connected with a professor who specialized in the impact of racial discrimination on psychopathology. “Working with both of them, I was able to create essentially a tailored programmed where I was looking at cultural experiences of suicide risk and youth by combining these two.” 

While forging her own specialized path of study, Polanco-Roman began to translate her research into real-life suicide prevention and minority youth support. While working in the Counseling Services Center at John Jay College, she co-facilitated a group for college students with chronic depression and suicidal ideation that focused on healthy coping strategies. As a training therapist at City College, she also conducted long-term individual psychotherapy in English and Spanish for children and adults at a community-based mental health clinic.

Polanco-Roman is a member of the Youth Suicide Research Consortium, an interdisciplinary network of researchers that aims to improve research on youth suicidal behavior, suicide prevention, and treatment, and to increase research on suicide among underrepresented populations of youth. Her work — which has been published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and other leading psychology journals — has helped illuminate the need for psychologists to account for experiences of ethnic discrimination as a potential source of psychological distress in diagnosing and treating suicidal behavior. 

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020

Finding and creating community within larger urban settings is a key part of Polanco-Roman’s life, and it’s also what’s attracted her to The New School and NSSR. City campuses are like a  “microcosm of the larger New York City,” she says. “It’s kind of like this dual identity component. I like the small feel within this larger environment. I find it to be more intimate and there’s a lot more learning that can go on there, and stronger connections that can be made.”

These connections can be critical for graduate students. As Polanco-Roman explains, the city setting provides ample opportunities for Psychology MA and PhD students to develop their concentrations. “Whatever one can imagine that they want to study or learn or train in, they can find it here.”

Polanco-Roman looks forward to building on her research with these resources, and collaborating with other NSSR faculty. 

She finds herself drawn to the work of Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, who runs the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab. “I’m interested in learning more about the relationship between how traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood experiences, might impact risk for suicide later into adolescence, maybe even young adulthood,” Polanco-Roman says. 

Curious about the potential interplay of traumatic experiences, attachment theory, and risk for suicide, Polanco-Roman is also drawn to the work of Howard Steele and Miriam Steele, both Professors of Psychology and co-directors of the Center for Attachment Research

Polanco-Roman is scheduled to teach courses like Research Methods in the fall, which provides hands-on experience in designing, running, and reporting psychology experiments.

Although academia at large has and continues to make major adjustments to learning due to COVID-19, Polanco-Roman is ready to adapt and be flexible in her first semester at NSSR, using the global pandemic affecting cities and communities as a teaching moment.

“Regardless of using distance learning or being in the classroom, I’m excited to start and I’m excited to work with my new NSSR family, faculty, and students, and make new connections,” she says.

Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

A Back Matter staff member shares the process of creating the publication (partly) remotely

After being admitted to the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) Master’s program at The New School for Social Research in Spring 2019, I was invited to the launch party for a student-created magazine called Back Matter. 

With an open bar at Von in NoHo to commemorate the end of their semester, Back Matter editors gave toasts to months of production and passed out copies. Nervously mingling with my soon-to-be professors and peers, I flipped through the pages of the magazine, enamored.

Producing Back Matter has become a rite of passage for CPCJ students. The magazine typically covers the publishing industry at large, and students in the relevant course direct their issue’s theme and aesthetic, filling roles across editorial, design, web development, social media and marketing, publishing and business. 

Formally known as the Multimedia Publishing Lab, the class was designed by CPCJ co-founder Rachel Rosenfelt, former publisher at The New Republic and founding editor of The New Inquiry, as a kind of capstone project, an opportunity for students from across The New School to apply their skill sets and interests to the full process of creating a magazine. 

Now, the class is co-taught by Jon Baskin and Jesse Seegers. Baskin, who handles the editorial mentoring, is the CPCJ Associate Director and a founding editor of The Point, a thrice-yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism. Seegers — who has worked architecture, design, writing, editing, publishing, and research — serves as the design beacon and teaches core classes in CPCJ and at Parsons School of Design.

After that night, I committed to the CPCJ program. I was drawn to how it merged design and writing practices. Now, I am finishing up my second semester and pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate minor in Design Studies. At the beginning of Spring 2020, I enrolled in Multimedia Publishing Lab with the intention of stepping outside of my editorial comfort zone and getting more portfolio experience with print design.

“This goes to the heart of what CPCJ was designed to achieve,” Baskin said. “I think the founders, Jim Miller and Rosenfelt, saw from the beginning that too much of professional publishing is bifurcated into different departments that barely communicate with one another. One of the goals of the program, embodied most successfully in this class, is to help graduate students who can work across those divides.”

We began the semester applying for and receiving our positions, noted in the masthead above. 

The editorial team picked out submissions, working with Baskin to guide student writers through the editing process. Second-year CPCJ students Taia Handlin, Editor-in-Chief, and Shulokhana Khan, Managing Editor, spearheaded this effort.

Meanwhile, the design team began to envision how the magazine would look and feel like. Creative Director Annika Lammers, a Parsons Master’s student, managed the overall visual concept, applying her spatial design skills to construct the physical publication. As Art Director, I spent hours with her pouring through other magazines and taking trips to Printed Matter, an artbook distributor in Chelsea, for inspiration. With the help of Seegers, we made mockups, printed them, printed them again, and then printed them yet again. We had big ideas of unique binding techniques, using the school’s risograph printer, experimenting with paper weights and textures. We worked with the editorial team to blend the thematic contents with visual expression. We created a graphic treatment to begin laying out the print product. 

The publisher began seeking printing quotes, and the digital team drew up plans for a website and social media marketing. We set editorial calendars, print dates, and budgets, and we started planning our own launch party. 

Then the world changed.

AAnnika Lammers and Alexa Mauzy-Lewis working on Back Matter in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez, Back Matter Marketing and Communications Director
Jon Baskin on a class trip to Printed Matter in the before-times| Photo by Annika Lammers, Back Matter Creative Director
Back Matter staff meeting in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez

“We began this second edition of Back Matter in January. Then, none of us was imagining our current reality, structured by daily video chats and people actually debating if silk scarves are better or worse than bandanas in stopping a pandemic,” wrote Handlin in her Letter from the Editor.  “We just wanted to make a sassy magazine that pokes holes in the immense, white, privileged landscape of publishing.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to trudge on virtually. We launched the new issue on the magazine’s website and began to roll out the articles and illustrations we had crafted.

It wasn’t easy. “We have had to relearn ways of communicating, sharing information, and effectively coming together to cohesively formulate the vision and content of the publication,” says Lammers. “We are now sharing different time zones from Australia, to Korea, to the U.S.”

“I cannot help but think that the initial design decisions made at the very start of the publication are reflective of our current surrounding environment,” Lammers says. “Back Matter’s hand-drawn illustrations, risograph-printed pages and sewn-bound finish strips back the complexities and reveals insight into the way we had to critically adapt and think about the publication.”

The Back Matter team is continuing to build out the website, publishing new pieces weekly. Cailin Potami wrote a piece on underrepresentation in publishing. Jessie Mohkami explored the gender gap in book club culture. Adji Ngathe Kebe explained how comp titles paved the way for the racist bestselling disaster American Dirt

Soon, we’ll share a special section that responds to the landscape of media in a crisis. We are working to finish our final print design, with hopes of printing it in the fall, if those who are not graduating will be able to return to campus by then.

Screenshot of the print title for a piece by CPCJ student Fareeha Shah.
Full article available online.
Screenshot of the first-page layout for a piece by CPCJ student Cailin Potami.
Full article available online.

The ending of this semester is bittersweet. Instead of celebrating our work together at a bar in the city, we are sitting alone in our respective homes at our computers. Through blood, sweat, and InDesign tears, we will have the final design for a print magazine, but its future, like many things, is TBD. Still, we were able to provide a digital home to the works of some incredible New School writers and illustrators — graduate work and research that was produced in the face of global chaos.

Publishing, at large, has been forced to adapt. This issue of Back Matter will always be a relic of this time.

Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is the Art Director of Back Matter magazine and a Master’s student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program. Cover art is by Hector Gutierrez.