Subject Areas Offer Focused Paths within Disciplines

Graduate school is a specialized environment where students can immerse themselves in a discipline. In Fall 2019, New School for Social Research Anthropology and Psychology students gained a new way to explore specialized areas of study within their chosen fields: subject areas. By pursuing course credits within these informal paths, students can deepen their research, develop closer relationships with faculty, connect with potential job and internship opportunities, and more.

Research Matters spoke to students in the Anthropology and Design, Global Mental Health, and Science and Society subject areas about their experiences. Read on to learn more!

Note that a new subject area is debuting in Fall 2020: Applied Psychology, which helps prepare Psychology MA students to be part of the growing field of user experience researchers

Anthropology and Design

Why do things look the way they do? In the Anthropology and Design subject area, Anthropology MA students have the opportunity to apply ethnographic research and conceptual frameworks in their field to how the world and its structures are designed. With access to the classes and resources of The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement, as well as NSSR’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism programs, Anthropology students can develop design practice and apply those skills to their research.

Erin Simmons, an MA student in the Anthropology and Design subject area, examines the evolving field of data representation. 

Erin Simmons, Anthropology MA student, and Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology

I am looking at the way that data visualization is being used within the international development sector,” Simmons says. “I work with things like complex poverty indicators, the human development index to look at how people’s perceptions of what poverty is and how it’s defined can be altered by the visualizations that are being used to represent it.”

Simmons was drawn to the subject area after working with economic texts and data collection. Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology and head of the Anthropology and Design subject area, encouraged Simmons to think deeper on how design tactics influence the way data is perceived. 

“Anthropology offers critical concepts and methods that are extremely valuable for the politically- and ethically-informed practice and analysis of design,” says Mattern. “Design, likewise, empowers anthropologists to think more expansively about the subjects, methods, and modes of their practice.” At The New School, continues Mattern, anthropology and design are “both honored as creative and intellectual practices that have much to learn from each other.”

By taking classes in data visualization and design, Simmons is elevating her work on poverty, and trying to present it in a way that is more accessible and effective. She hopes to collaborate further with designers and create new forms of data representation.

Global Mental Health

Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Yet gaps in culturally relevant studies and resources persist globally and hinder the advancement of solutions to this problem. 

Psychology MA students can pursue the Global Mental Health subject area to understand how treatment and prevention can be better implemented on an international scale.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in global mental health, says the subject area exposes students to how “mental health researchers are reimagining the ways we can design and deliver mental healthcare, reduce stigma, and partner with communities to empower and support one another.”

Although the material draws largely from psychology, Global Mental Health courses are very interdisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, public health, and design. This experiential coursework, combined with internship placements, prepares students to work for international agencies, government, and non-profits engaged in community-based mental health work. 

Evan Neuwirth, Psychology MA student, and Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology

This year, Evan Neuwirth decided to dive into Global Mental Health. In addition to finishing his MA in Psychology and starting his PhD, Neuwirth is an Executive Function Coach runs a small tutoring business that specializes in executive function remediation. A student fellow at NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, he also works with the International Rescue Committee program and directed a documentary film that chronicled the lives of the Liberian national amputee soccer team.

From these diverse experiences, Neuwirth found a common thread: that the mental health of people affected by crisis is poorly understood. Turning to psychology, he realized part of the problem was in the lack of diverse and relevant research; many mental health studies are done in a Western context and without quality socio-economic considerations, which mean they are inadequate for addressing global disparities in mental health support.

After taking classes with Brown, Neuwirth was able to connect his own research ambitions to other work at The New School. Joining in Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, Neuwirth is working with other students to investigate and reduce barriers to mental health care in low-resourced contexts. Current lab research includes refugee mental health and psychosocial support, hospital-based mental health detection and prevention, and human rights and global mental health.

“Global mental health is still an emerging field,” Neuwrith said. “It is exciting to be involved now and to see the systematic and global impact this research could have.”

At the IRC, Neuwirth works on their newly implemented Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Framework, helping to foster programming to achieve mental health and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for their populations. 

“The New School is one of the few places offering these kinds of global mental health studies now,” Neuwrith said. “This work is going to be the future of how we understand mental health.”

Science and Society

Writing a thesis is a solitary, often lonely process. For Anthropology MA student Sonia Zhang, her thesis is a deep dive into loneliness itself.

“I’m interested in how different understandings and experiences of loneliness come together in contemporary life, and one of the fields I identified is social robotics in Japan,” Zhang says. “By looking at how people in the field reconcile ideas of loneliness both in their professional life and through the products — in this case, robots —  they design, I am trying to understand what loneliness does in the contemporary, technology-infused landscape.”

Zhang’s research has always been interdisciplinary, drawing from literature in anthropology, public health, medicine, and engineering. In Fall 2019, she took Science and Society, a class taught by Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and began to study canonical readings and current debates in Science and Technology Studies (STS).

Sonia Zhang, Anthropology MA student, and Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology

“Without some training in [STS], I wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue a project about scientific knowledge and technological institutions at all,” Zhang says. The breadth of material in the Science and Society course also helped her move forward toward this goal. “The course’s emphasis on morality made me consider some angles of the loneliness debate that I have neglected before,” she adds, connecting questions of moral behavior and classification to current pressing political and social problems.

The course is foundational to the Science and Society subject area, which aims to help Anthropology MA students ethnographically and historically investigate how scientific research is informed by and informs social processes. Langlitz, who turned to Anthropology after completing training as a physician, focuses his research on behavioral sciences and larger philosophical questions. 

“The sciences construct the societies we live in and our societies construct the scientific knowledge that informs some of the most consequential political decisions we take,” says Langlitz. “This complicated relationship raises long-standing philosophical questions. But recent attempts on both the left and the right to democratize and politicize scientific expertise are making this relationship one of the most pressing issues of our day.” The Science and Society subject area helps “provide students with the conceptual and methodological toolkit they need to understand the knowledge societies we live in.”

Outside of class, he helped Zhang by recommending independent STS readings and convening Anthropology student meetings and workshops on collaborative research in science-related topics.

Although Zhang didn’t initially set out to pursue a science-related topic, she’s now deeply engrossed in the area. “I would recommend this subject area to anyone who has some curiosity in how science works in general, as a form of knowledge, truth, institution, power.”

NSSR Responds to COVID-19

As the spread of COVID-19 affects every part of life across the world, The New School for Social Research community is putting knowledge into action. Faculty, students, and alumni are sharing their expertise on how the pandemic is affecting immigration, protests, economic policy, workers’ rights, and emotional well-being.

Read on for more from our anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, historians, and more.

Last updated: 5/26/20

Illustration credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS


ANTHROPOLOGY

Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology:

In contrast to the buffoonery masquerading as leadership in the White House at a moment that necessitates the full mobilization of the government, Cuomo’s slideshows project a reassuring image of managerial order—one that has arguably distracted from his missteps, such as the delay in implementing social distancing measures and closing non-essential businesses. Still, the motley aesthetic of Cuomo’s briefings mirrors our own confusion and disorientation… 

Art in America: Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 Briefings Draw on the Persuasive Authority of PowerPoint
(4/13/2020)

Janet Roitman, Professor of Anthropology:

In other words, the post-Covid future can’t be appreciated using pre-Covid models and modes of valuation. It will be shaped by long-term obligations instead of high-risk/high-reward strategies or stopgap measures that merely shift risk and debt between balance sheets. 

Public Seminar: The Sesame Street Economy
(5/7/2020)

Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology:

When you depict people as dangerous contaminants, you make dehumanization and elimination more likely. This is the precarious situation we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and ‘othering’ in many parts of the world, including the United States.

Immigration Impact: Coronavirus Cannot Become an Excuse to Label Groups of People ‘Invasive’
(3/20/2020)

CREATIVE PUBLISHING AND CRITICAL JOURNALISM

Mary Steffenhagen, CPCJ MA candidate:

Rather than centering public safety, police are actively endangering people who must continue to live their lives during the pandemic — and blaming them for the danger. 

Salon: One of COVID-19’s unlisted side effects: An increase in police power
(05/03/2020)

ECONOMICS

The COVID-19 Policy Forum from the Schwartz Center for Economics Policy Analysis convenes Economics faculty and students to share their ideas on progressive policies and considerations in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Read updates from Professors Mark Setterfield, Paulo dos Santos, and Willi Semmler, PhD and MA students, and more.


Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development:

They should have built up some buffers against such sudden shocks and risk.

New York Times: Some Companies Seeking Bailouts Had Piles of Cash, Then Spent It
(4/24/2020)

Paulo dos Santos, Assistant Professor of Economics:

To enable millions of people to focus on the areas of work needed to fight this pandemic, society needs to recognise the valuable public goods that care labour creates, and to reward those performing other essential tasks in line with the social contribution their work makes.

Public Seminar: Time for a Rethink on the Worth of Work
(4/7/2020)

Sanjay Reddy, Associate Professor of Economics:

Models are needed for sensible decision-making, but so is sound judgment. For it to be applied, it is essential to recognize that models can be constructed in different ways, reflecting a range of plausible premises. 

Barron’s: The Danger of Overreliance on Epidemiological Models
(4/29/2020)

Is the coronavirus lockdown justified? One school of thought holds that any societal cost is worth paying to save a life. This seems sensible at first, but we do not honor this dictum in normal times, either in India or globally. We tolerate people dying for lack of resources, often on a mass scale, in developing countries.

The Print: Lockdown or not? COVID-19 raises key questions on decision-making in a democracy, like India
(3/31/2020)

The economics discipline has provided the most influential framework for thinking about public policies, but it has proved inadequate, both in preparing for the current emergency and for dealing with it. The pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics and points in some directions that this rethinking should take.

Foreign Policy: Coronavirus and the End of Economics
(3/31/2020)

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, has been been a major voice in advocating for workers’ rights, against budget cuts, and for more compassionate retirement policies:

From her Forbes blog:


Lance Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Economics:

But as it stands, the breakdown of CARES spending is already biased away from households and toward non-financial and financial business, viz.

Institute for New Economic Thinking: CARES Will Care for Wall Street and Big Business, for Macroeconomic Balance Maybe Not So Much
(4/6/2020)

The only way to restore consumption is for the government acting as the ‘borrower of last resort’ to raise its deficit and transfer the proceeds to households.

Public Seminar: COVID-19 Hits the Dual Economy
(3/30/2020)

Economics alumni are major voices for economic and monetary policy reform:


Kacy Hao (MS Economics ’19) offers a glimpse into a day of shopping, teaching, and living while under quarantine in Qingdao, China (3/24/20)

HISTORICAL STUDIES

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History:

In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have met the COVID-19 crisis with something not seen in decades: the fascist politics of disease. And no one typifies this brand of politics better than Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Project Syndicate: The Fascist Politics of the Pandemic
(05/04/2020)

We are recognizing that we need a more important role for the State, one that gives answers to society. This means that in a context of so much emergency, the market is not everything. The market clearly can not resolve everything.

Clarin: La pandemia de coronavirus: ¿estamos viviendo el inicio de una Nueva Era?
(03/28/2020)

Seen from the center of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., Argentina seems to be an example of political sense and health-related planning.

Clarin: Mirada desde el centro de la pandemia
(03/22/20)

Claire Potter, Professor of History:

“Emergencies teach us something about what citizens want and need, and they teach us how to safeguard our economic system from grifters and market dynamics. The Great Depression, and then World War II, pushed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to recognize social needs and respond to them. What progressives refer to approvingly as the welfare state, and conservatives as “creeping socialism” are the same ratchet effect regarded from two different political perspectives.”

Political Junkie: Governance in the Time of COVID-19
(3/24/2020)

Eli Zaretsky, Professor of History:

When the coronavirus presented them with a choice between letting people die and closing down ‘the economy’, there was no question which the masters would choose. A herd that had already had its most contentious and inquisitive members culled, and that had been rendered submissive, would easily become accustomed to the slaughter of two thousand or so per day.

Public Seminar: Culling the Herd
(5/18/2020)

LIBERAL STUDIES

Dominic Pettman, Professor of Culture and Media:

Netflix is one of the most popular strategies we have against smashing our bug-like faces against the onrushing windscreen of personalized finitude. And as such, it embodies a new kind of digital cogito: “I watch, therefore I am (not).” Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that Netflix itself has become sentient, and is trying to communicate with us, and perhaps even warn us against further dangers to come.

b2o: Netflix and Chills: On Digital Distraction During the Global Quarantine
(4/29/2020)

PHILOSOPHY

Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy:


Philosophers have had a long, tortured love affair with social distancing, beginning with Socrates confined to his cell; René Descartes withdrawn from the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (in which he was a participant) into a room with an oven in the Netherlands to ponder the nature of certainty; others like Boethius, Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci, all part of this long tradition of isolation and thought.

New York Times: To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die
4/11/20

He also talks with The Slowdown podcast about how COVID-19 may be rewiring our very being, the need to better understand our anxiety, and how the pandemic is revealing how much we don’t know. Listen to the audio recording here (4/6/2020)


Prof. Critchley discusses mortality, hypochondria, anxiety, and pandemic on The Stone, the philosophy forum at the New York Times that he moderates. Listen to the audio recording here (3/30/2020)


Asad Haider, Assistant Professor of Philosophy:

The only way to resolve this contradiction within our current situation is for governments to mercilessly take measures that threaten the private property of capitalists and the “free market.” The more they take control of the private property of necessary industries through nationalization, provide public services and cash payments, and displace market relations by social planning, the more likely it is that we will be able to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still allowing people to meet their survival needs. In the absence of such changes, human values are powerless against economic value.

Slate: A general strike is on the horizon in the US — but what happens after could change everything
(3/31/2020)

Jamieson Webster, part-time faculty:

This is a strange story to tell: it is about shifting ideals, how time unfolds for an individual, and the will to act or speak at the limit of life. Also, the care one must take when speaking of the dying or the dead.

New York Review of Books: End Notes: What Palliative Care Looks Like in a Pandemic

POLITICS

Nancy Fraser, Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science:

A huge aspect of class struggle in the history of capitalism has been over that care work and who’s going to pay for it.

The New Republic: A Woman’s Worth in a Pandemic
(04/28/2020)

Mark Frazier, Professor of Politics:

“Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters (that goes back to the 1840s), and I’m continually struck as well by how often social movements take unexpected turns in all parts of the world. That said, while I hesitate to make firm predictions on this topic, I see good reason to expect a significant resurgence of protests. There have been some even as fear of infection has led to a drop in all kinds of crowd activities.”


Public Seminar: Life and Protest in Hong Kong Amid COVID-19
(3/17/2020)

It will be extremely tempting for the CCP and the Hong Kong government to use the threat of coronavirus contagion to deny protest permits, and to use aggressive coercive techniques to prevent any “unlawful assemblies.” But the protesters have the support of an exceptionally large number of Hong Kong citizens.

Public Seminar: Hong Kong Under Lockdown
(4/28/2020)

Patrick Ciaschi, a Politics PhD candidate:

“This is the alarming thing about the transmission of fear. It infects people’s feelings and actions, causing them to behave in ways that often run against their own interests, not to mention their larger obligations to public health and social life.”


CBC: ‘Nothing spreads like fear’: COVID-19 and the dangers of emotional contagion
(3/19/2020)

Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and head of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility:

With the ability to move about freely sharply curtailed in nearly every country in the world, immigration scholars will need to think hard about a fundamental assumption of the field: that we are living in an “age of mobility.

Public Seminar: The Fragility of the Global Mobility Regime
(5/19/2020)

For the first time in their lives, many Americans are now walking in the shoes of others. Or, rather, not walking. We are confronting government actions, policies, and admonitions that seek to dramatically limit how and when we move.

From these experiences, can we learn empathy for those around the globe for whom mobility is routinely and severely restricted: Syrians refugees trapped in camps on Lesvos, and Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladesh; Palestinians confined to Gaza, and controlled by separation walls on the West Bank; Central Americans pushed out of the United States to wait in border towns in Mexico; Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang; African migrants stopped in boats on the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya; victims of mass incarceration in the United States; poor people everywhere who lack the resources to begin journeys to improve their lives.

Public Seminar: The Great Immobility
(3/17/2020)

Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida, a Politics PhD student:

In short, I am suggesting a generalization of the #CancelRent demand to cover people employed in all non-essential sectors who cannot continue to work from home. However, there is an obvious problem: the interconnection between these two sectors. Even with canceled rent, many who work in the non-essential sector will not be able to pay for their food and common utilities without working.

Public Seminar: Beyond #CancelRent
(5/21/2020)

PSYCHOLOGY

Miriam Steele and Howard Steele, Professors of Psychology:

We know that securely attached adults and securely attached children are not immune to stress. The challenge is to feel able to acknowledge the stress and share one’s unsettling feelings with family members and close friends

New School News: Psychology Professors Miriam and Howard Steele Discuss How Families Can Cope with Grief and Stress During the Pandemic
(5/14/2020)

Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology:

…we need calm discussions of our fears. These conversations ought to emanate from high political offices and resonate from personal discussions with family, friends and co-workers. This will naturally lead to sympathetic and supportive behavior that may be seen as heroic problem-solving strategies. These strategies take the form of everyday actions (like washing one’s hands for 20 seconds and restricting self-touch of one’s face), as well as large-scale coordinated scientific efforts at developing treatments (ramping up the production and delivery of life-saving ventilators and protective gear for front-line health care workers) and, longer term, vaccine developments — all this can do much to attenuate the fears currently (and reasonably) felt on a universal scale.

Steele, H., (2020). COVID-19, Fear and the Future: An Attachment Perspective. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17 (2), 97-99.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology:

Influencers, bound by contracts and carefully crafted images, simply can’t be that free. The best they can do, Brown says, is “tap into needed resources like safety, community, a sense of trust.” He believes that with Covid-19 sticking around for an indefinite amount of time, the field will grow narrower, as more people will start “congregating” around a smaller group of influencers who can meet their needs.

Wired: Could the Coronavirus Kill Influencer Culture?
4/14/2020

…we suggest that COVID-19 requires us to prioritize and mobilize as a research and clinical community around several key areas: (a) diagnostics, (b) prevention, (c) public outreach and communication, (d) working with medical staff and mainstreaming into nonmental health services, and (e) COVID-19-specific trauma research.

Horesh, D., & Brown, A. D. (2020). Traumatic stress in the age of COVID-19: A call to close critical gaps and adapt to new realitiesPsychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(4), 331-335. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000592

Bill Hirst, Smith Professor of Psychology:

We’re essentially being forced to retreat into our own private world so the notion of New York, where the city is an extended living room, is disrupted completely.

CNN: Echoes of 9/11, as New Yorkers ‘try to keep calm but we can’t quite carry on’
(3/22/2020)

Thomas Vance, Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow:

While mental health services have shown to be inaccessible to many in the United States, research indicates that African Americans encounter added challenges that prevent them from getting the care they need. Among those challenges, according to Thomas Vance…are increased stigma associated with mental health concerns and lack of available culturally competent care

NBC News: Taraji P. Henson creates campaign to offer African Americans therapy during pandemic
(4/16/2020)

SOCIOLOGY

Malkhaz Toria, a Sociology MA student:

I had already experienced the drama of forced displacement when in 1993 my family had to leave our home in the Abkhazia region of Georgia at the end of the armed Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But strangely, this time, I was going simultaneously through mixed feelings of joy and distress. I was not being forced to abandon my home, but was rushing back to reunite with my family – my wife and two kids — in Georgia.

TCDS PanDemos: NYC – Tbilisi: Traveling through the Pandemic into Uncertainty
(5/7/2020)

Fr. Paddy Gilger SJ, a Sociology PhD candidate:

It’s almost like, since so many of my normal habits, my regular ways of distracting myself from what my heart is saying, have been swept away by the silence of the quarantine, that God’s desire for my attention to go outwards is coming through even stronger. 

Patheos: When Quarantined, Give Your Heart Generously: A Conversation with Paddy Gilger SJ
(4/4/2020)

It is as if Milan, under quarantine, has asked me to renounce the particular version of our American response to fear that I have made my own: the unceasing effort to control, to master, to define and thereby dictate what is really real and truly true. And thereby be secure.

America: A Jesuit went to Milan to learn Italian. Covid-19 taught him something more.
(4/2/2020)

INDIA CHINA INSTITUTE

The Pandemic Discourses blog aims to foster an interdisciplinary and global dialogue on the historical, social, and political dimensions of the pandemic. It provides perspectives from different corners of the world, and especially the global South, bringing to the forefront variable and contested understandings of disease, expertise, and society. It includes noted authors from South Africa, China, Brazil, and more.

Read Pandemic Discourses here


TRANSREGIONAL CENTER FOR DEMOCRATIC STUDIES

PanDemos 2020 is the latest initiative from Letters from the Field, a column devoted to news and commentary from TCDS friends and colleagues around the world. PanDemos 2020 focuses on the relationship between democracy and COVID-19, and includes letters from Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and more.

Read PanDemos 2020 letters here

NEW UNIVERSITY IN EXILE CONSORTIUM

Saladdin Ahmed, Visiting Assistant Professor at Union College:

COVID-19 is the kind of event that has momentarily confused various ruling groups. Clearly, there is a confusion about how much and what kind of information the public should be allowed to access. The confusion is mainly caused by a significant degree of conflict between the priority of the stock market and the possible political consequences of a pandemic. The virus does not have an ideology, but the outbreak will certainly have ideological consequences. It is now time for creativity. It is time to simultaneously reinvent methods of resistance against all viruses and all fascists.

Telos: COVID-19: Communism or Fascism

Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.

Human Sciences After the Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

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