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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Operating on Unfamiliar Terrain: Ann Stoler on Her New Book, Research, and The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry

Ann Laura Stoler wants readers to push beyond established concepts about colonialism and its enduring effects.

In her ninth book, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Duke), Stoler asks “what sorts of rethinking and reformulations” might allow a better understanding of “colonial presence.” Her ambition is not to overthrow the concepts that underlie knowledge about colonialism. Rather, she uses methodical interventions to “inhabit them differently,” broadening our sense of the complex outcomes of imperial projects.

Stoler’s approach represents the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that characterizes the New School for Social Research, where she serves as the Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies. It also characterizes her leadership of the New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, which she has called a “labor of love.”

To work at the edges of a disciplinary boundary, or in the borderlands between disciplines, means that a scholar often occupies a liminal space, opening oneself to the possibility of being equally misunderstood by peers in multiple fields. In a recent interview with Itinerario, Stoler explains that such misunderstandings have sometimes determined the reception of her work, especially in the early part of her career.

“When I was in Madison,” Stoler says, “a stolid World Bank consultant on the faculty criticized my work for being ‘political’ and not ‘scholarly’ and with avuncular largesse counseled me to cease the former if I wanted tenure.” But Stoler persisted in her provocative line of research, drawing on Foucault and Marx, and navigating between anthropology, history, and philosophy. Her work is now recognized precisely for its deft integration of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and has a well-established home at the New School for Social Research.

The New School attracted Stoler because it valued her cross-disciplinary approach to scholarship. Prior to her arrival, Stoler says that she “imagined a philosophically inflected critical scholarship with a different bite and edge.” She adds that her work “has been nourished by being in New York [her birthplace] and by the environment that the New School faculty and its eclectic graduate student body offer.”

Ultimately, the convergence of Stoler’s passion for critically grounded, non-traditional research and the New School’s commitment to its history of critical scholarship resulted in the creation of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry.

Stoler explains:

“I wanted to create a space where it was possible to learn about what you felt you should already have known- whether that be the work of Fanon, Hegel or Marx and to learn about how to think those thinkers today with ‘masters’ who had taught and studied those thinkers for years and then to come together with fellows from all over the world to think those thinkers differently again.”

Today, Stoler’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry offers weeklong immersive experiences for young and seasoned scholars from around the world, and is comprised of graduate school-style master classes each morning and project workshops in the afternoon. Every institute puts advanced graduate students and junior and senior scholars into an intensive intellectual environment in which appreciation of the politics of knowledge is key as they cultivate and refine their critical skills, and share work with their peers.

Applications for the 2017 Summer Seminars are open through December 15. International Scholars, especially those based in the Global South, are encouraged to apply. Scholarships and travel grants are available. This summer’s featured lecturers will be Anthony Appiah, David Harvey and Michael Taussig. In previous years the ICSI lecturers included Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Talal Asad, Patricia Williams and the New School’s Simon Critchley and Jay Bernstein.

The New School’s focus on heterodox perspectives, along with its emphasis on the connection between theory and contemporary political and social issues, continues to attract faculty and students eager for the opportunity to work across disciplinary boundaries, for being unsettled, and for mixing and matching lines of intellectual influence.

When reflecting on the development of her own career, Stoler notes, “‘influence’ is a word that Foucault reminds us hides and I would argue steals meaning from the practices that make it up. I’d say that those places where I hadn’t expected to go were provocations that compelled me to do something in a way I might not have otherwise, caught me productively off precarious balance, and exposed me to the vulnerabilities of operating on unfamiliar terrain.”

For the rest of Ann Stoler’s interview, read the upcoming issue of the Leiden-based journal Itinerario.

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times is available now. In her endorsement of the book, Patricia J. Williams writes: “Duress is an extraordinary excavation of colonialism’s recurrent conceptualizations of massive zones of ecological ruination, human vulnerability, and affective disregard. Ann Laura Stoler is laser-like in the forensics of those imperial pursuits—global and across centuries—whose accumulating sedimentations have all but naturalized unremitting states of emergency, eternal war, and perpetual exceptions to the rule of law. This book’s comprehensive clarity about the histories of our present is a gift of vision that, if heeded, might point the distance toward reckoning and repair.”

Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. Stoler is the director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. She taught at the University of Michigan from 1989-2003 and has been at the New School for Social Research since 2004, where she was the founding chair of its revitalized Anthropology Department. She has worked for some thirty years on the politics of knowledge, colonial governance, racial epistemologies, the sexual politics of empire, and ethnography of the archives. She has been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études, the École Normale Supérieure and Paris 8, Cornell University’s School of Criticism and Theory, Birzeit University in Ramallah,  the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, Irvine’s School of Arts and Literature, and the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the recipient of NEH, Guggenheim, NSF, SSRC, and Fulbright awards, among others. Recent interviews with her are available at Savage MindsLe Monde, and Public Culture, as well as Pacifica Radio and here.

For more details about Ann Stoler’s publications, see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf.

Anthropology Publications: 2015

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology shared thoughts about their recent work.

Nicolas Langlitz

Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, recently published the article “On a not so chance encounter of neurophilosophy and science studies in a sleep laboratory” (History of the Human Sciences, 2015) and “Vatted Dreams: neurophilosophy and the politics of phenomenal internalism” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015).

Langlitz shared thoughts about this recent work:

“While anthropologists have long been interested in cultural otherness, we often seem to feel closer to an Amerindian shaman than to the reductionist philosopher down the corridor. This led me to take an ethnographic interest in neurophilosophers and to explore the common ground between anthropologists of science and empirically oriented philosophers of mind who have both been  frequenting brain research facilities since the 1970s without ever talking to each other.”

Other publications include Neuropsychedelia (University of California Press, 2012), and Die Zeit der Psychoanalyse (Suhrkamp, 2005).

Choose a publication below to learn more.


Bio | Langlitz received doctoral degrees both in medical anthropology (Berkeley) and history of medicine (Berlin). He is an anthropologist and historian of science studying epistemic cultures of mind and life sciences, especially neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and primatology. He was trained as a physician before conducting ethnographic fieldwork in two neuropsychopharmacology laboratories in Switzerland and California on the revival of psychedelic research since the 1990s.


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