Three Projects from NSSR Alumni About What and How We Eat
Food is at the center of human life. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and why has evolved from matters of basic essential survival function to ritual, culture, and identity. Research Matters sat down with NSSR alumni from Anthropology, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, and Politics whose work collides with the study of food.
The Food of a Diaspora
During the 2019-2020 academic year, Isobel Chiang (MA Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism ‘20), received a grant from the India China Institute to conduct ethnographic field work within the Chinese diaspora community in Kolkata, India. Specifically, she set out to explore the phenomenon of Indian-Chinese food.
“I wanted to know how Cantonese and Hakka cuisines have been retained, modified, understood, and misunderstood in India today,” Chiang says. “I have a background in sociology, so I knew going in that when you study the food of a diaspora, what you’re really studying is the culture of a diaspora, the politics of a diaspora, you’re studying boundaries, the way we hold onto identity or ideologies or religious convictions when we move away from home, the way we forget.”
In addition to visiting Chinese restaurants and food markets, and of course, eating, Chiang also conducted oral histories with Indian-Chinese residents.
“I didn’t want to simply ‘parachute’ into Kolkata and start researching. I wanted to get to know the residents there, fold myself into their lives. Luckily for me, they were so gracious and welcoming. I ate an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of dumplings. I talked with business owners and chai sellers. I was invited into peoples homes to cook with them and share meals. I went to universities in Kolkata to interview young Indian students about their conceptions of Indian-Chinese food. I even found myself at the birthday party of one of Bengal’s most famous soccer players,” Chiang says.
This project has personal implications for Chiang. Her father was born in Kolkata, but during the Indo-China War of 1962, he and his family moved to Toronto, Canada. Chiang is one of the few members of her family who have been back to India since.
“My father remains unsentimental and indifferent toward India,” Chiang describes. “The only thing that connects him to the place he’s from, the only time he allows his children to peek behind the curtain of his past life, is when he cooks fried rice. This sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Thus, food has always been my entry point to India. In many ways, going to India was my attempt at dealing intellectually with my father, with his heritage, and therefore my heritage.”
Chiang crafted these experiences and research into a piece of long-form journalism that she workshopped in a Master’s writing workshop during the Spring 2020 semester, and hopes to eventually publish it one day.
“The New School grant wasn’t just helpful for making this trip possible, it made this trip possible,” Chiang said. “Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct independent research abroad. Very few publications have the money these days to send journalists abroad to cover stories like this, so it would have been a difficult story to pitch to a magazine and get funded.”
The Future of Meat
When Jan Dutkiewicz (PhD Politics ’18) began graduate work in Politics at NSSR, he thought he might want to study the $200+ billion U.S. animal production industry. He looked for academic literature on the topic but found very little, especially in political science. So he set out to create it.
“It seemed like a really good opportunity to bring the tools of political economic inquiry — the intersection of economic activity with politics and social effects…to this [industry] that’s completely hidden in plain sight,” Dutkiewicz says. He worked within Politics as well as with faculty from several different disciplines, including Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History and co-founder of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which helped support his research. “The New School is really unique in that…there’s a real openness to disciplinarily risky research,” Dutkiewicz remembers.
His dissertation, Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal, traced how the U.S. meat industry seeks to produce a commodity that best suits changing market conditions. He is currently turning that dissertation into his first book, which he places at the intersection of political economy, economic sociology, and economic anthropology.
After graduating from NSSR, Dutkiewicz was the Connie Caplan Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. There, he started asking questions around normative ethics and bioethics in the animal production industry, especially around new food products. In particular, Dutkiewicz began to dig deeply into plant-based meat alternatives and the potential of cellular agriculture — the production of animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves, also known as lab-grown or cultivated meat — to transform the global food landscape. In addition to his peer-reviewed publications, Dutkiewicz now writes and speaks extensively on the meat and alternative protein industries for media outlets ranging from The Guardian and Jacobin to Forbes and Business Insider. “Bringing this research to the public is a really important and valuable part of my work,” he says.
In his 10+ years studying the topic, Dutkiewicz has witnessed an enormous growth in public awareness, concern, and debate over the effects of animal production and consumption on anthropogenic climate change. He believes that recent advances in the alternative protein industry will make it easier for more people to decrease their meat consumption
“What cellular agriculture will do is that it minimizes switching costs. It’s saying, we’re not asking you to actually change what you like eating, what your tastes are, what your culinary and dietary habits are. We’re just asking you to switch between products that are ultimately very similar. From a social impact perspective, you can’t underestimate the power in our society of providing people with more consumer options and technologically developing superior products,” Dutkiewicz says, citing empirical evidence from the fast-food industry showing the popularity of alternative meats among people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians
Dutkiewicz will continue his work this fall as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.
Mushrooms as Ethnography
Peggy Tierno (MA Anthropology ’20) loves mushrooms. Sporting a pair of tiny dangling red mushroom earrings, she explains how a paper on the kinship of fungi for her Anthropology Master’s program evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative journal.
“The paper explores multi-species and multi-sensory ways relating and building community and kinship relationships with other species,” Tierno says.
Her infatuation with mushrooms started when one grew miraculously among her spruce saplings. This led her down a path to research the species’ other incredible natural interactions.
“When you’re thinking about food, for a lot of people, food might be the only way they are interacting daily with the natural world,” Tierno shares. “So I’m thinking about our relationship to food, thinking about how mushrooms relate with their environment, and thinking about those reciprocal caretaking relationships.”
Because of her passion for the subject, Tierno decided to expand and evolve the life of her work beyond a paper. “I was thinking on how I could turn it into a collaborative project, with submissions of poetry, personal writing and artwork alongside research on mycelium and mushrooms,” she says.
While taking a class on design and publishing and using the resources at the Making Center at Parsons School of Design, Tierno created a prototype for her journal. Now, she hopes to establish a journal of diverse multimedia work that is created collaboratively, and that has the potential to eventually develop into a larger project around community and food.
“Food is something very intimate, it’s very important to my personal life and my personal relationships, and how I connect with people. I love to cook for people. I love to be cooked for,” Tierno says. “Another thing I am thinking about with this project is how to do DIY cultivation or communal cultivation of mushrooms that people can have access to, expanding the collaboration of relating with mushrooms.”
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.
“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.
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).
“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.”
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
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
…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.
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.
…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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
“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.’”