Jeremy Varon in Conversation: The Meanings and Legacies of the 1960s

The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of 1968, the iconic year of a seismic decade in the U.S. and around the world. Amid countless museum exhibits, academic conferences, and media retrospectives, many drew comparisons between 1968 and today around increasing global turbulence and sense of unease.

Professor of History Jeremy Varon is an American historian specializing in the 1960s, and in 2008 co-founded The Sixties, the first academic journal solely devoted to scholarly study of the decade. He recently reflected on the 1968-2018 comparison, and on the ways in which we study, celebrate, and remember our past, for Public Seminar.

Research Matters spoke with Varon about the topic, and the more personal dimensions he brings to his research. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Research Matters: In your work, you discuss the idea of nostalgia, and of the “anniversary glut” as a double-edged sword. You open your Editor’s Statement [of The Sixties] by stating that what you want to do in the journal is not traffic in nostalgia but provide an actual professional history–provide a memorialization of the period that is more nuanced. What do you see as the pitfalls of nostalgia? And what do you think is its power or allure?

Professor of History Jeremy VaronJeremy Varon: The 1960s, and 1968 in particular, are endlessly memorialized, especially in those societies that, during that time, underwent profound transformations. Part of that memorialization is often a reliving of that past by those who shaped it, and that memorial culture can be either superficial or substantive depending on the media. This can be a wonderful point of entry for younger people who aren’t familiar with this period, and a wonderful incitement to memory for the people who lived through it. But for a discerning professional scholar, it’s a mixed bag: there’s exposure of an important era that I’ve dedicated my life to studying professionally, but yet a kind of reduction of history to a set of ruling cliches.

I define nostalgia as an affection for one’s past simply because it was one’s past. Engaging the ‘60s beyond nostalgia involves a combination of assiduous historical study that tries to understand the alchemy that produced a singularly robust era of global revolt in the history of human civilization. History never fully goes away; it is with us, and we live with it. Still, half a century later, the ‘60s represent an epic frame of reference–partly mythological–to which people appeal when they want to champion justice, confront illegitimate power, and advance the project of human liberation. In my work, and in the journal, we try to honor both: detached scholarly analysis, and then ethically and existentially engaged connection with a history that I see as an unfinished project.

RM: I’m interested in the personal aspect of it for you. What are the elements of the ‘60s to which you’re most drawn in your research?

JV: I was born in 1967. As a child, I was obsessed with the ‘60s and wanted to participate in whatever of it was still available to me. [By college in the 1980s], my life consisted of reading philosophy and literature, playing the guitar with friends, and ceaselessly protesting, while living in what was essentially a campus commune. I saw myself as in some sense trying to deeply realize the ethical vision of the 60’s movers and shakers: Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, people I saw as these larger-than-life moral superheroes. When I started to study the era in a more sophisticated way, I remained inspired by the genuine heroism but also very curious about the moral and political complexities of the era.

The Sixties: A journal of History, Politics and Culture is the only academic, peer reviewed journal to focus solely on this transformative decade of history.

RM: You write that your hope for The Sixties journal, which celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, is to sharpen and expand the terms of established debates and open up new ones. What debates about the ‘60s were ongoing in 2008?

JV: The journal was founded during a time at which there was no such thing as “1960s Studies.” It was explicitly meant to be a catalyst for an emerging subfield as opposed to a disciplinary reorientation. I think the journal has succeeded in being that kind of home that has helped the field evolve. The single greatest evolution has been the maturation of the idea of the global ‘60s–that there were spirited revolts that were happening almost synchronically in diverse settings throughout the world, and that to understand the ‘60s deeply you had to understand the causes of this unbelievable synchronicity far transcended coincidence. By now, the global ‘60s as a framing concept has achieved a kind of hegemony and I think it’s increasingly understood that the grand narrative in which the revolts of the ‘60s participated was decolonization: the “Third World “trying to liberate itself from the chains of colonialism, inspiring in the process all kinds of freedom struggles that might exist outside of an explicit colonial context.

As to where we have broken new ground, I would point to an essay about East Germany’s adoption of the paper dress, which was invented by Andy Warhol and other Western pop artists as a kind of disposable art that made some comment on mass consumer culture. In East Germany at the time, they had a shortage of cotton and needed to produce things cheaply. So they marketed this paper dress as a kind of wearable fashion. Though it was the product of decadent, bourgeois Western modernism, East Germany also wanted their youth to participate just enough in the global youth culture so they wouldn’t feel left out and disdainful toward their elderly communist masters. That’s what I call a “global ‘60s adventure story,” where you have the migration and resignification of certain texts, artifacts, and impulses in disparate geographies, conditioned by geopolitical and economic conflicts.

A second landmark essay is a major rethinking of the counterculture by David Farber. He used the concept of “right livelihood,” a Buddhist idea–that young people wanted to separate themselves from the crassly materialistic mainstream and live lives of meaning, but also had to earn enough money to have a proper livelihood. The essay provides a reinterpretation of the counterculture not simply as the enemy of white-collar, soul-deadening bureaucracy, but a movement of young people who went to work to try to build, if only in small ways, a more humane society. Farber’s essay is absolutely required reading for anybody who does anything new with the idea of the counterculture.

RM: Bill Clinton once said, “If you look back on the ’60s and think there was more good than harm, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” I’m interested in the way that the ‘60s, and especially the memory of this time and the way we make meaning of this era, defines political lines. How do you see that playing out?

JV: I would argue that the memory wars over the ‘60s are ongoing. Clinton’s diagnosis more or less still holds. Many people have said that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is a reference to a pre-1960s past, where white supremacy was substantially uncontested; [second-wave] feminism hadn’t yet happened; America was very much a white, Christian nation, as defined by the people at the top of social and cultural ladder. Progressive America, broadly defined, wants to deepen values of pluralism, ecological stewardship, emancipation–the hallmarks of the ‘60s.

There are, however, twists. For example, a lot of conservatives see themselves as today’s great rebels, fighting against the politically correct, progressive, Hollywood, beltway establishment. The younger set of conservatives feel like they are the ones who are authentically fighting a new kind of liberal establishment.

RM: As a historian, what are some of the ways in which you have been challenged and have challenged other people to push past that kind of easy division of the 60s between “it was mostly good” or “it was mostly bad”?

JV: I would say that the single greatest example is how I present the ultra-radicalism of the Weathermen. People who denounce the Weathermen think that I’m an apologist for terrorism, while people who are closer to their vision think that I represent some kind of liberal mainstream that marginalizes radicalism. I don’t think that either of these accusations is true or fair, and neither speaks to the complexity with which I try to present a morally and politically complex history.

My other intervention is to get my colleagues to recognize that our sustained interest in the 1960s isn’t simply because a lot of important stuff happened then. Its enduring appeal is the power of its political and moral, world-changing vision of a more just and more free world. And more and more as I get deeper and deeper into this identity, I’m owning that sense of wanting to sustain a legacy of contestation in how I do my scholarship and, in a deeper sense, how I live my live. And that has meant a return to that sense of awe I had as a young boy looking at this history just out of my reach, one that seemed almost infinite in its mandate to future generations to struggle in their own times and in their own terms to make a better world.

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

From Fascism to Populism in History: Federico Finchelstein’s New Book

For New School for Social Research Professor of History Federico Finchelstein, the present-day stakes of engaging with the history of populism could not be more critical.

As Finchelstein puts it in his new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press), “Populism’s past challenges to egalitarian forms of democracy continue in the present and are now threatening the future of our own democratic times.” He contends that a historical understanding of modern populism—whose roots he also traces back to the earliest days of twentieth century fascism—has become critical in any analysis of contemporary politics.

Differently put, our capacity to respond to the challenges presented by populism depends crucially upon our willingness and ability to acknowledge and process the lessons of history.

Having grown up under military dictatorship in Argentina, and having studied various forms of authoritarianism throughout his career as an academic, Finchelstein finds it surprising that his work has gained such sudden and urgent relevance in the United States and around the world. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency, Finchelstein suggests that the United States has become the global leader of populism. But it is hardly alone in grappling with populist movements, marking only the most recent in a long string of developments around the world. From Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Brexit, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front—among many others—populism is on the march around the world.

At the same time, it is the 2016 presidential election and the success of populism in the United States that most intrigued Finchelstein, at the very least because President Trump represents the first modern populist to hold the office here. “I never thought these issues would hit so close to my home in New York,” he said in a recent conversation with Research Matters. Reflecting on his longtime commitment to researching the history of fascism and populism, Finchelstein recalled his feelings about the intellectual legacy of The New School upon his arrival in 2006. “The New School for Social Research was founded not only on the idea that there was an academic need to resist fascism,” he said, “but also a need to understand it.”

To this tradition of scholarship, Finchelstein brings a distinctive approach to an examination of populism “from the margins,” integrating perspectives from the Global South that commonly remain outside Eurocentric historical narratives about populism’s emergence as a political force. For example, he reminds readers that Argentina’s Juan Perón became the first populist leader to reach power in the postwar era, becoming an example of how to do things for subsequent generations of populists in Latin America and elsewhere. In the subtext of his genealogy of populism, Finchelstein points to an unmistakable through line back to fascism—a line that similarly goes unaddressed in extant scholarship on populism. “Many interpreters of populism have a limited understanding of the historical and genealogical connections between populism and fascism,” Finchelstein explained. “They collapse important historical distinctions and different historical contexts, as well as continuities.”

From Fascism to Populism in History addresses precisely these contextual differences and continuities, providing a nuanced vocabulary for describing the particular ambitions of present-day populists and carefully articulating what it inherits from fascism. “In history,” Finchelstein writes, “fascism was a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in Germany’s case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust.” He adds that its central aim was “to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above.” Although populists often attract what Finchelstein calls “neofascist fellow travelers”—particularly when it comes to the definition of “the people” in ethnic, national, and racial terms—he emphasizes that they typically aim to, “reshape democracy in [an] authoritarian fashion without fully destroying it.” The result might not look like the dissolution of democratic rule, but nevertheless often represents a significant erosion of democratic institutions.

A History of Infrastructure in East Africa

Emma Park Joins The New School’s History Faculty

This June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrated the opening of a sleek Chinese-built railway that connects the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The line replaces obsolete rails constructed by the British in 1901, and its $3.2 billion price tag makes it the most expensive infrastructure project in Kenya’s 53-year postcolonial history.

For historian Emma Park, who joins The New School as an Assistant Professor of History this summer after completing her doctoral work at The University of Michigan, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) serves as the most recent example in a long history of infrastructural development projects; and it brings into full relief the complex relationship between technology and politics—or technopolitics—in Kenya. Park’s dissertation examines the history of such large-scale infrastructure projects in East Africa, and she brings to The New School an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective on the region. Working at the intersection of African Studies, the history of technology, and science and technology studies, Park will also complement the department’s strength in capitalism studies.

In a conversation about her research, Park suggested that President Kenyatta has used the new railroad as proof of his effective leadership in the run-up to Kenya’s general election. Kenyatta “hopes to mobilize the ‘successful’ completion of the project as demonstrable evidence that he is, in fact, doing the work of governing by provisioning for his constituents,” she said. Referring to the president’s directive to hasten the railroad’s completion so that its grand opening would precede national elections, Park added, “The politics of infrastructure in Kenya are quite complicated, but they’re not always subtle.”

To help understand the intricacies of infrastructure projects in East Africa—and to consider what they reveal about the interdependence of technology, state power, and capitalism—Park has written about three distinct moments in the last 120 years of Kenyan history. At the core of her dissertation sits this question: “Why has access to infrastructures emerged a key metric or frame by which people understand their relationship to the state?”

To understand the dynamics among capital, state formation, and the politics of belonging, she analyzes British road construction at the turn of the twentieth century, the development of radio networks after World War II, and the recent launch of digital communications and financial services by communications giant, Safaricom.

For Park, these three projects represent specific moments in the history of development as an idea. In the first case, she said that the British East Africa Company was given a mandate to “bring commerce and civilization” to Kenya. In the Post-War Period, the British aimed to advance social welfare by providing access to information. And in the most recent case—in what Park called a “bottom of the pyramid” approach—developers claim that telecommunications and financial services will accelerate and generalize prosperity across Kenya. But Park argues that the long-angle view of development enabled by an exploration of its infrastructures demonstrates these three have much in common, as designers imagined how contact with new technological networks would generate internal transformations in users.

Park uses these case studies to test what she calls the “durability” of several prevailing claims. “Africa has long been positioned—up to the present—as a place without technological expertise,” she said, citing one enduring misconception. Despite the contributions of Kenyan knowledge workers and experts to the development of major technological projects, the state (British and Kenyan alike) has found ways to reclassify and diminish their contributions. “Irrespective of how centrally important these figures were to making infrastructures work,” Park explained, “their labor was constantly devalued.” She further suggested that an understanding of the processes by which corporate and state enterprises have extracted under-compensated but value-generating work in the past clarifies extractive processes in the contemporary moment.

In other words, Park suggested, historical research can help to contextualize what many refer to as uniquely “neoliberal” development interventions. “One of the labors of the project is to say that the devaluation of the everyday expertise of African workers is not unique to a neoliberal vision of development,” she said, “Contemporary projects operating under the banner of value at the bottom of the pyramid are building on a long genealogy.”

Park is excited to integrate these research interests into her pedagogy at The New School, where she will begin by teaching a course on Modern African History this fall. Asked about why she is looking forward to teaching at The New School, Park said, “The University’s commitment to social justice and active participation in politics and political discussion—as well as its encouragement of research that has political purchase or can gain traction in these domains—was very appealing.” She added that she looks forward to contributing to joining a collaborative department that places an emphasis on capitalism studies and interdisciplinary scholarship. “To feel as though my commitment to work between these fields is supported is wonderful,” she said.

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.