The Gothicness of Black America: Liberal Studies Alumna Leila Taylor on Her First Book

A library after closing hours can be a mysterious place — making it a great location to talk with Leila Taylor about her first book, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019). From a bench in the children’s section of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Taylor, a 2018 Liberal Studies MA alumna and BPL’s creative director, explores the history of Afrogoth, the visceral horror and inherent gothicness of Black America, and her own history in the Goth scene.

Taylor’s personal relationship with Goth culture is critical to the development of the book. “I didn’t really intend to write about myself as much as I did,” she says. “I was intending it to be much more of a historical and cultural text, but I found that it was hard to talk about the subject matter without talking about myself. When I realized that so much of my own personal story was directly related to these larger historical issues and larger cultural issues, all of these genres mushed together made sense.” 

In Darkly, Taylor writes, “I suppose I would fall into the Traditional goth category or (god forbid) Elder Goth.” Growing up as a self-proclaimed Goth kid in Detroit, Taylor threw herself into the music of the 80’s goth rock. She recalls buying Siouxsie and the Banshees albums and hanging a Joy Division poster on her bedroom wall. As an adult, she reclaimed this inner angsty teen by going to events hosted by Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy, which produces events on ‘art and medicine, death and culture’.

Decolonizing Goth

Through these experiences, Taylor felt the whiteness in Goth spaces. She was often the only Black person at the events and concerts, and she started to ask herself why. “When I started this project, I was really looking at what it was like being a Black person in the Goth scene and to be the only person in the room and all that entails,” she said. “I made an effort to go looking for people who shared this experience.”

Taylor found a good starting point in the Afropunk scene. “That was my gateway into all this,” she laughs. The documentary Afro-Punk (2003) examines Black people in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, and is also the name of a movement that has blossomed into journalism, fashion, and a music festival. 

Taylor looks at Afrogoth as a twist on Afropunk. “Afrogothic is a similar  Black-centric perspective of the gothic. Some people think of it as the subculture of people who dress in black and wearing too much eyeliner, but for me, it’s closer to a way of looking at a genre through an Afrocentric, decolonized lens.” 

What Taylor found is that the experiences of Black people in the scene didn’t have anything to do with them being Goth, but rather, the lived experience of being Black in America — applicable in any field in which people of color are not considered, marginalized, or taken for granted.

“I realized there really wasn’t any difference between Black Goths and everybody else. The only difference was that they were Black,” Taylor said. “It really stopped becoming about Goth as a subculture, but the gothicness of Blackness and how blackness itself is a gothic experience.” Darkly asks, “If the gothic narrative is metabolized fear, if the Goth aesthetic is romanticized melancholy, what does that look and sound like in Black America?” Taylor contrasts this question of the “aesthetic of horror” with the real visceral horror that defines the history of race in America for many. Part memoir, part historical context, and part cultural criticism, the book analyzes the ways Goth embodies race relations in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The skeletons in the closet are the persistence of white supremacy and the ghosts of slavery, and the haunted grounds are the ubiquity of Black death and its mourning. This ghastly undercurrent of fear and grief moves throughout Darkly, but there is still a joy in Taylor’s writing, a reclamation in processing this trauma. 

The Horror of Working, Writing, and Studying

While Darkly was published in 2019, the idea of the book has motivated Taylor for years, even before she started her Master’s in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had it in my head the entire time. I was writing short essays here and there of cultural theory stuff and not getting published and realizing that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

Taylor began to take note of faculty members who could help shape her writing and processes. “I was taking classes with the people that were writing the kind of things that I like to write and the kind of style that I like to write, so having those people as a sort of a regular weekly influence was helpful,” she says, citing Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media, and Eugene Thacker, Professor of Media Studies as influential mentors. 

In addition to studying part-time at NSSR, Taylor was working full-time at BPL. When asked when she found time to work on the book, she replied “Every moment! It was before work, sometimes during work, after work, and on the weekends,” she said. “It was a lot. It was really rough, but basically any free time was when I did it. The one thing, working for the library — it was incredibly supportive. Also if I ever needed a book source it’s right there.” Working as a designer also helped her develop her creative problem-solving skills and her research process. “Part of the creative process is trying to do something that no one else has done before, something unique that is expressive of yourself and communicating a larger idea. This all goes back to the idea of sending a message,” Taylor explains.

Research Matters asked Taylor if she had any advice for writers who are full-time students, like many Liberal Studies and Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism students, or have unrelated full-time jobs. “Give yourself a break,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t write a day, because you’ll go crazy. Don’t think about what you think other people want to read or what you think will get published or what you think is going to sell. You have to do what you want to do, as long as you can, and as much as you can.”

The Future of Afrogoth

Looking to the future of Afrogoth, Taylor says that the movement is happening right now and there’s only more to come. Taylor emphasizes that there is an abundance of work on the history of Black people of horror films. She recommends the Shudder documentary Horror Noire as particularly great viewing. “There’s a lot more scholarship about [Afrogoth] and work being done creatively in the mainstream giving it a bigger voice,” she says. Films like Tales from the Hood and the more recent works of director Jordan Peele are using horror to express the Black experience and the day-to-day terror Black people continue to experience. The success of Peel’s Get Out has amplified his messages to much wider audiences.  

“It’s not only Black people,” she says as she excitedly references newer horrors like HBO’s Los Espookys, featuring New School alum Julio Torres, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, called “the first Iranian vampire Western.” “Any kind of opportunity for different faces and different voices is good. I think it’s only going to get better.”

McKenzie Wark on Capital, Capitalism, and Expanding Our Language

Our data is everywhere. From Facebook likes to online personality quizzes, our internet clicks leave an ongoing record of our personalities, our preferences, and our habits.

This information is the new currency of the 21st century. Our very sociability has been commodified, and those who own and control our data form a new ruling class, argues McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media, in her latest book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? “If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold,” she says.

A follow-up to A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), Capital Is Dead draws on Wark’s past work, the work of contemporary theorists, and the writing of the Situationists to explore the information age. Wark poses the questions: What if this era cannot be defined by capitalism anymore — and what if it’s something worse? Research Matters sat down with Wark to discuss her latest book and the process behind developing her new theory. 

Wark’s main argument is this: The new ruling class uses our information against us to deter labor and social movements, thereby changing the way we must look at traditional leftist ideas around capital. 

The book opens with a quote from writer Kathy Acker, a friend and collaborator of Wark’s and the focus of both a class she teaches and an upcoming NSSR seminar she’ll lead: “Post-capitalists’ general strategy right now is to render language (all that which signifies) abstract therefore easily manipulable.” With capitalism is no longer an efficient descriptor for today’s chain of production, Wark explains that failure to innovate new language may be a major part of the problem. “It struck me that a phrase like neoliberal capitalism is just incredibly bad poetry,” she says. “You just shove a modifier on something that you then don’t think about the thing you’re modifying, the modifier has a modifier. That’s not a thought to me.” Additionally, a new form of class relation has arisen in response to this data commodification, one that cannot be contained by terms such as “capitalist” and “worker.”

Creating a New Vocabulary

Instead, Capital is Dead provides a new descriptive language to better navigate this flow and ownership of information and properly analyze a new world of data. Wark gives us the terms “vectoralist class,” those who own not only the flow of information, but the “legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce,” as well as “hacker class,” the vast majority who are producing new information. She urges us to see “a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value. ” While not exactly the same as labor, Wark notes from Marx’s writings that “there are always many subordinate classes….modes of production are multiple and overlapping.” As expected in a book about capital, discussions of class, production, commodities, and struggle wind their way through the text, but with considerations and redefinitions for how those forms are changing or are no longer applicable.

Wark also addresses science and the challenges of the current Anthropocene era, weaving through theorists from Joseph Neeham to Jean-Paul Sartre to make connections between natural and social history, and how the hacker class might look to the former for new models of organization.

Building on her wealth of celebrated prior research, articles for the intellectual commons Public Seminar, and other published writings, Wark says this latest thought experiment is ”summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time.” She also shares that writing practice was a major part of her research process to produce this thought experiment. 

“I’m a writer,” she says “Media studies is my discipline, but that was a bit accidental. So what I practice is writing and how we understand, in this case, Marx and the various people in the conceptual space of Marx as writers, and how did they invent or create new languages that cut across the assumptions of the times.”

Collaborating for Learning and for Survival

One of the more challenging parts in Wark’s theory is accepting how little is actually known about this new controlling vectoralist class. Rather than assuming they can be analyzed in the same way as capitalists, she makes the case for starting over with the critique strategies and looking for a way out.

Wark emphasizes that these questions raised in Capital is Dead can only be answered together, working across disciplines and fields. “Humanities and the social sciences really do need to think about what a collaborative production of knowledge looks like,” she says. “What are collaborative practices of knowledge that reach outside of disciplinary assumptions and cultural habits?”

These questions help guide the courses Wark creates and teaches at NSSR and at Eugene Lang College. Drawing largely on the work of other writers and theorists, she aims to share with her students knowledge and work practices that enable them to survive in this political economy,  “It’s about living,” she says of both studying and surviving in the current political economy of knowledge.

During the 2019-2020 year, Wark is teaching courses at NSSR and at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in which she does just that, with a particular focus on trans issues. In “Trans Theory as Gender Theory”, a Spring 2020 course in NSSR’s Department of Liberal Studies, Wark and her students will work together on constructing alternate pathways into the research on gender and sexuality. Much like in Capital Is Dead, Wark also hopes the class will develop new concepts for trans literature, art, and media that don’t fit neatly into existing theoretical categories.

Pushing those boundaries is essential to Wark’s work, but she’s not always met with positive response. The introduction to Capital is Dead offers a range of reactions from scholars and activists to her work ⁠— as well as Wark’s dry, hilarious responses. “They’re a lot of Marxists who think like cops and that’s just boring,” Wark laughs.

Living After Capitalism

So if this isn’t capitalism and we’re still not quite sure of what it is, is there a way out of it? Wark is wary of treading into false hope for the future. In A Hacker Manifesto, Wark saw a path to reclaim the commodification of information — a battle she now deems as lost. 

“A moment of defeat is useful to acknowledge and retreat and try to secure any basis at all of non-commodified social life,” she says. “There is a very narrow possibility of surviving this century.” Wark is critical of false optimism that accompanies some “allegedly leftist theory.” To her, an accurate assessment of the social and political climate is critical for any shred of hope in radically changing it. “It’s all a bit bleak,” she says. 

However, as Wark writes, “This was in the end a defeated movement, but that is no reason to pretend that it didn’t exist. Rather, there’s work to be done to narrate and analyze the struggles of that time and those that continue as relatively novel expressions of what kinds of worlds are possible in and against the forces of production of these times.”

Benjamin Van Buren on Perception, Illusion, and Returning to New York

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which was circling around Mars, delivered one of the most striking and close-up images of this distant place that had ever been seen by earthlings. The photograph featured what looked like a human face sculpted into the surface of the planet. While many realized that the face was simply a coincidental pattern of light and shadow caught at just the right time, some took this “face on Mars” as evidence of abandoned alien civilizations and government cover-ups. 

Picture and close-up of the “face on Mars” taken by the Viking 1 orbiter

Visual perception has a difficult job. Starting from highly limited sensory input (flat, low-resolution images), it fills in gaps, adding information that was never there to begin with. Such extrapolations can provide an accurate sense of the world, or they can lead us astray. The wonders and folly of perception motivated Benjamin Van Buren, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), to develop a research program concerning the precise mechanics of attention, perceptual inference, and illusion.

But how exactly does one study perception? One approach, which Van Buren favors, is psychophysics, a branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena. Van Buren’s work maps visual inputs onto visual experiences, an approach favored by Gestalt psychologists, who discovered, for example, that how you see something moving depends dramatically on the context in which you view it.

Which dot is circling the other?

Van Buren gives the above example: Which dot is circling the other? We perceive the relationship between the two dots (i.e. which is stationary, and which as ‘orbiting’) by referring their motion to an external reference frame — either the screen or the moving background texture. The influence of background motion on the appearance of the dots strongly supports the Gestalt view of perception — that wholes take precedence over parts, and the appearance of parts depends on the wholes they are seen to comprise.

Gestalt Psychology has a long history at The New School; the first University in Exile faculty included Max Wertheimer, considered the father of Gestalt psychology, and Rudolph Arnheim. More recently, working outside the Gestalt tradition, Arien Mack, Alfred J. and Monette C Marrow Professor of Psychology, has advanced the study of perception with her research on inattentional blindness.

Van Buren’s path to NSSR began with an interest in visual aesthetic experiences. “In high school, I was always doing art-related stuff; making animations, wood carvings, and kinetic sculptures after Jean Tinguely. Then I got to college and the whole universe opened up before me,” he recalls. At the University of Pennsylvania, he followed a program in cognitive science and started working with Anjan Chatterjee on projects in neuroscience and aesthetics. “I wanted to see if it was possible to use a relatively ‘hard’ scientific approach to better understand things that seem more ineffable, like art experiences,” he says. This led him to a string of projects exploring the cognitive demands of viewing photographs of beautiful and ugly landscapes, how attention is deployed to attractive faces, and how artists’ painting styles change as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most recently, Van Buren has also been probing the perception of intentions. Strictly speaking, when we see somebody reach out to hold our hand, or run to catch a train, the sensory data contain nothing more than physical states and changes. But in both of these cases, we experience the action in more than merely physical terms — we see it as performed by an agent with a mind, who has beliefs and goals. As a case study, his research has focused on another strong and storied illusion, in which we reflexively see simple geometric shapes (which we know to be inanimate) as alive and goal-directed when they move in particular ways.

In the same way that we can’t help but experience other visual illusions, we can’t help but see the shapes in the above Heider and Simmel film as animate, and telling some kind of story

Van Buren explains that seeing the world in this rich way is adaptive, driven by evolutionary pressures and the demands of development. Successful interaction with the world requires seeing it in all sorts of ways that go beyond the input data. “You can conceive of perception as solving a number of different problems. And we need not always think of perception as one process; it can be understood a variety or processes that are tacked together as solutions to problems that are posed by the environment,” Van Buren says.

For the past several years, Van Buren has been investigating perception’s curious “solutions” at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate, and at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he conducted postdoctoral research. His projects have explored everything from the perception of food’s caloric content to visitors’ aesthetic experiences in art galleries. Most recently, he has been interested in the question of how and when a still photo — which, strictly speaking, corresponds to a single moment of time — is seen to represent a longer stretch of time (from a few seconds to hours).

A New York native, Van Buren is looking forward to joining the New School and leading his own laboratory, the NSSR Perception Lab. He envisions the lab as “a space where people feel encouraged to break new intellectual and methodological ground, and where they learn from one another by sharing and debating ideas.” He is also excited about potential interdisciplinary collaborations with Parsons faculty and students. “Designers spend much of their time thinking about how we see the world in order to improve our experience of our surroundings. A lot of this knowledge would be interesting to vision scientists, but communication between these fields has been fairly rare. Fortunately, The New School is known for collaborations across disciplinary boundaries and for a widespread willingness to explore new avenues of research,” he says, citing the example of Professor of Psychology Michael Schober, who conducts research on jazz musicians as they improvise. “This work moves beyond all the existing paradigms in psychology in order to answer profound questions about how people read each other’s signals and create together.”

In Fall 2019, Van Buren will be teaching two classes. In “Visual Perception and Cognition,” NSSR graduate students will survey the latest vision science, including research on the perception of color, motion, shape, material, and depth. “I want to focus on big themes, and I plan to incorporate a lot of demonstrations.” he says. In “The Psychology of Aesthetics and Design,” undergraduates will study existing literature on empirical aesthetics, design a research question, and test their hypotheses through rigorous experimentation. He hopes these projects will reflect students’ own design practices and concerns, and that through them they will also discover new ways in which empirical methods can be used to enhance creative work.

Rewarding Courage in Public Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Human Sciences After the Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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