“The New School opened with ‘eclat’ on February 10, 1919, bursting onto Manhattan’s cultural scene with an exciting program of Preliminary Lectures delivered by leading social scientists of the day.”
—Judith Friedlander, A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia University Press, 2019)
Those first lectures at The New School, then known as The New School of Social Research were the first act of a new academic institution born in protest. The New School’s founders included James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, pacifist professors fired from Columbia University during World War I for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States. Other Columbia faculty soon resigned in solidarity, and together with other progressive intellectuals, they planned and opened a new school to “meet the needs of intelligent men and women interested in the grave social, political, economic, and educational problems of the day.”
The New School marked the centennial of this revolutionary act with the Festival of New, a weeklong festival in October of innovative performances, talks, workshops, screenings, exhibitions, and more open to all.
The New School for Social Research began the Spring 2019 semester with a Centennial lecture series that tackled the themes of migration and mobility, democracy and populism, and economic inequality and the future of capitalism.
NSSR students took that line of critical reflection even further in Fall 2019. With funding from the NSSR Dean’s Office and from The New School, they produced conferences and events that explored NSSR’s history and examined the changing definition of what it means to be “new.”
THE NEW SCHOOL, THEN AND NOW
The institution envisioned in The New School’s 1919 Preliminary Lectures pamphlet is quite different than the university today. That distance between radical ideal and lived reality catalyzed Philosophy PhD student James Trybendis and candidates Teresa Casas Hernandez and Veronica Padilla to organize a conference around pedagogy, and how those 1919 ideals could be rearticulated today in the classroom experience.
“It can’t just be the content [of classes] that’s radical,” says Casas Hernandez. “The form can be a bit stiff. We ask, ‘how can you use other disciplines and methods?’”
The symposium brought together graduate students and faculty from NSSR and Parsons School of Design as well as Pratt Institute. With opening panelists Dr. Robert Kirkbride, P.J. Gorre, and Tara Mastrelli, the symposium began with a discussion of the history, founding philosophies, and possible future of The New School. Attendees then participated in collaborative workshops on belonging, posthuman life, and meaning facilitated by Scherezade Garcia-Vazquez, Eva Perez de Vega, Michele Gorman, and Dora Suarez that aimed at exploring innovative approaches to rethink pedagogy.
“Philosophy happens in dialogue and in community,” Casas Hernandez says. “You need a community to think.”
Later, over ice cream, attendees discussed the ideas from the opening panel and the workshops and how they could apply what they learned in their own practices and classrooms. While it might be impossible to return to 1919, or to founding ideals that, in reality were never executed as written, the symposium was a chance to imagine what could be in the next 100 years. What’s important, says Casas Hernandez, is “having this space for discussion.”
AESTHETICS, POLITICS, AND THE CREATION OF THE NEW
Aryana Ghazi Hessami, a PhD student in Anthropology, and Adrian Totten, a PhD student in Politics, met in a Modernist Aesthetics class taught by Jay Bernstein, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy.
It follows, then, that Symposium on Aesthetics, Politics, and the Creation of the New, the Centennial conference they created, was inherently interdisciplinary, a chance for participants from many backgrounds to examine, interrogate, and critique the aesthetic nature of politics and reflect on the foundation of The New School.
Hessami and Totten also had a perfect keynote speaker in mind: Hessami’s MA thesis advisor and NSSR Sociology alumnus Martin Plot, now Research Professor of Political Theory at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council and the Institute of Advanced Social Studies in Argentina.
In his 2014 book The Aesthetico-Political: The Question of Democracy in Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, and Rancière, Plot sought to overcome the binary between normative or analytic approaches to theories of democracy on one side, and Schmittian theories of sovereign decision on the other, by turning toward the phenomenological tradition, which he argues “could give birth to a conception that fundamentally opposes the theological-political view from the position of an aesthetic–in the original sense of ‘aisthesis’–primacy of the plurality of perceptions and appearances in the understanding of the political.” Plot calls this new conception the aesthetico-political, and he expanded on that research and more in his Symposium keynote address, “Becoming Beginners: The Body of Necessity and the Body of Freedom in Arendt and Butler.”
Before his address, the Symposium welcomed graduate students from NSSR, Princeton University, CUNY Graduate Center, the University of Chicago, the University of Costa Rica, and Goethe University, Frankfurt for two panels. The first, ‘The Birth of the New’ addressed philosophical and theoretical considerations of the question of the new in politics; Philosophy PhD candidate Veronica Padilla was the discussant. The second, ‘Aesthetics, Action, Politics,’ discussed empirical case studies on the role of art and aesthetics in politics; Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey was the discussant. Panels were interspersed with mini ‘installations’ featuring presentations of works of art that touched on the Symposium’s theme of the relationship between art and politics.
SOUNDS FROM THE PAST
Since 1972, the student-run Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (GFPJ) has published essays and translations from some of the day’s leading philosophers and thinkers, including Axel Honneth, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Trân Duc Thao, and Wolfram Hogrebe.
Their archives run deep, and editorial board members and Philosophy PhD students Krishna Boddapati, Cayla Clinkenbeard, and Ceciel Meiborg discovered some audio treasures: recordings of lectures and conference presentations from major philosophers. While many of those transcripts had been published in the GFPJ and other outlets, some hadn’t ever been published, and few had heard the talks themselves after the fact.
“Last year we applied for the Centennial fund because we found these boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, mostly recordings from the 70s and 80s, and it was a mix of lectures, conference presentations, seminars,” says Meiborg. Funding from The New School for ‘Philosophy Recorded: Celebrating 100 Years of Radical Thought at The New School’ helped the GFPJ begin to digitize the recordings, necessary to both preserve the recordings themselves and to allow GFPJ to hear them, since there was no reel-to-reel equipment at the university.
At the Night of Philosophy, a dusk-till-dawn celebration of learning held during the Festival of New, the GFPJ editorial board worked with Zed Adams, Associate Professor of Philosophy to hold a special listening session. A mix of 40 New School students and community members attended in the hopes of hearing snippets of lectures directly from Jacques Derrida, Hans Jonas, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Charles Taylor. The in-room audio systems didn’t quite work, remembers Meiborg, and the group improvised by playing the recordings on a smartphone held up a microphone.
The GFPJ is continuing to digitize recordings and assess ownership rights for publishing audio files; Meiborg says there’s nothing like hearing the recordings themselves, parsing through the cadences of speech and thick accents. Plans are in the works to publish what they can in written form; a transcript of the Jonas lecture on the responsibility of philosophers and artists, and three lectures by past NSSR professor Aron Gurwitsch on philosophy of mathematics, will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2019 (40:2) Centennial issue.