On October 13, 2022, The New School will host the first inaugural event on behalf of the new Henry H. Arnhold Forum on Global Challenges, “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt.”
Funded by $3 million gift from the Arnhold Foundation, the Henry H. Arnhold Forum on Global Challenges will give international visibility to New School activities on global issues. Under the lead of Will Milberg, NSSR Dean and Professor of Economics, the Forum will bring together scholars from different disciplines, and sponsor conferences and events on issues such as climate change, threats to democracy, and global inequality. The Forum will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to understanding global challenges and a cross-pollination of graduate student training. According to Dean Milberg, this year, the overarching theme for the forum is to interrogate and locate the relationship between democracy and ethnonationalism with in the U.S. as well as global perspectives.
This year, the forum will focus specifically on threats to democracy, and the “American Democracy in Crisis” event, organized in collaboration with The New School for Social Research, will be a debate and discussion focused on the meaning of democracy in the context of the United States today and the ways in which racism, immigration, and citizenship are entangled in these varying perspectives of democracy.
The inaugural event of the new Henry H. Arnhold Forum on Global Challenges. PRESENTATIONS: “Alexis de Tocqueville on democracy and its culture” Jeffrey…
This debut event will consist of five presentations and a roundtable discussion to engage the audience and invite different perspectives. Each speaker is a leading expert and has been assigned an important figure in the conceptualization of American democracy based on their expertise and research interests.
Jeffrey Goldfarb will present “Alexis de Tocqueville, democracy and its culture.” Goldfarb is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and Senior Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. His work primarily focuses on the sociology of media, culture, and politics.
Juliet Hooker will provide insights on “Frederick Douglass, abolition, civil war, and democracy.” Hooker is a Professor of Political Science at Brown University. She is a political theorist specializing in racial justice, Latin American political thought, Black political thought, and Afro-descendant and indigenous politics in Latin America.
Paula Giddings will join us from Smith College to talk about “Ida B. Wells, race, gender, and the struggle for voting rights.” Paula J. Giddings is Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor Emerita of Africana Studies.
Deva Woodly will give a presentation on “John Dewey, the prospects for democracy in war, peace, and Depression.” Professor Woodly is Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, interested in investigating democratic politics in a non-traditional way.
James Miller will give a lecture on “Hannah Arendt, insurrection and constitutionalism.” Miller is a Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies, and Faculty Director of the MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.
These presentations will be followed by a roundtable discussion with all the presenters interrogating the question “What does democracy mean today in the US?” Participants will be encouraged to ask questions and provide insights into the overarching question as well.
The New School for Social Research is excited to welcome Nicola Marcucci as the Fall 2021 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Marcucci is a sociologist working in critical theory, intellectual history, the philosophy of social sciences, modern social and political thinking. He is member of the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, member of the board of the Teoria Critica della Società seminar at the University Milano-Bicocca in Italy, and associated with the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds. As part of an ongoing project investigating the sociological redefinition of critical faculties—reason, will, and judgment, Marcucci is finalizing a first volume on Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and the birth of classical sociological theory in France and Germany.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus.Learn more about Speier here.
Prof. Marcucci talked with Research Matters about what he’s looking forward to this year, what needs to be interrogated about the status of critique between sociology and modern philosophy, the importance of intellectual history to reconstruct the relation between the two, the legacy of the French school of sociology, the NSSR archives and the role of French refugees.
RM: What was your path to becoming a Hans Speier Professor?
NM: Having spent some years as a visiting researcher at NSSR in the past, some colleagues knew my work in both the departments of Philosophy and Sociology. I received an offer to teach from the Sociology Department two years ago; I accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, but I had to refuse at the very last minute because I didn’t receive my visa in time. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the department of Sociology (to which I would like to express my gratitude) — and last year, this opportunity popped up. Long story short, it is very exciting to be here, because of what The New School represents, because I appreciate very much the possibility of teaching here, and because I got the opportunity of making up for the first, lost opportunity I got.
RM: As a visiting research fellow here in 2014-2016, what did NSSR offer to your scholarship? Who did you work with, and what did you develop here?
I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European fellow for three years at EHESS Paris, and during these years I was sponsored by this fellowship to spend two years at The New School. My research concerned Spinozism, Neo-Kantianism and their influence in French and German debates on sociological theory from the 70’s of the 19th century to the end of the First World War. Chiara Bottici [Associate Professor of Philosophy] invited me to NSSR (2014-2016), because of our common interests in Spinoza and critical theory. During my stay I also collaborated with Omri Boehm [Associate Professor of Philosophy], organizing an international conference titled: “Spinoza and Kant: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Politics.” Meanwhile I continued developing the sociological side of my research and I organized an international conference titled: “Durkheim & Critique”. The contributions of this conference have been recently published in an edited volume.
RM: What made you want to return to teach further at NSSR? How does NSSR fit your ethos as an academic?
NM: I’ve been working as a researcher for many years. After obtaining my doctoral degree in history and sociology of modernity in Pisa, I taught and I researched in Berlin (Centre Marc Bloch and Humbodlt University) Paris (Sciences Po and EHESS) and Milan (Milano-Bicocca), and finally I arrived in New York. This, I think, says something about me and about why The New School is a desirable place for what I do; the international background of my research, and the interdisciplinary nature of it, are both reasons why I feel welcomed here. Moreover, I understand my work as a researcher as a way to critically engage with moral and political issues of the world I belong to, and The New School has supported intellectuals’ public engagement since its very origin.
During my stay as Hans Speier Professor, I’m working towards the publication of a “Durkheim Companion” that will be out next year, and I intend to finalize the research that I began in 2014 in the Philosophy department. As mentioned, this work consists of a reconstruction of the French and German classical sociological theory in the light of the fact that, since the late 18th century, an alternative emerged that opposed Spinozan to Kantian philosophies. This alternative, since the last decades of the 19th century, influenced the sociological debate and Durkheim’s search for an autonomous understanding of human reason, in part recovering the legacy of modern philosophy and in part breaking with it. My reconstruction ends with the way Durkheim and its school understood the sociological break with modern philosophy, offering an explanation of how it intended to overcome both Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. This relation of continuity and rupture — the relation of philosophy and sociology — which my book intends to reconstruct, is something that can be fully granted only if we accept to move within an interdisciplinary dimension guaranteed and supported by intellectual history. Hopefully this research will be finalized by the end of the spring when I’m planning to present its results in Argentina, France, and Italy.
RM: In your writing, you flesh out the more nuanced political and methodological work of Émile Durkheim, regarded as the founder of sociology. What, broadly, do you think is misunderstood about Durkheim’s contributions to the discipline?
Durkheim intended to emancipate sociology from the legacy of philosophical Enlightenment (in the form that this took in Spinoza’s immanent rationalism and Kant’s transcendental idealism) by offering a sociological theory of the social constitution of the categories of the understanding. I think only another author had a similar ambition in the history of modern social theory: G. W. F. Hegel. To put it straightforwardly, I think that the contribution of Durkheim and its school — starting from completely different epistemological presuppositions and obtaining completely different results, but sharing a similar ambition to the one of Hegel’s social theory — should be taken seriously and considered as a different and somehow alternative paradigm in order to figure out what social critique is and could represent. In this last regard, I think the volume that I recently edited, Durkheim & Critique, contains a chorus of different voices intervening in this regard and the beginning of an answer to your question.
The relevance of Durkheim in regard to social critique is broad and requires some clarification though beyond the few things that I just said. What has been misunderstood, silenced or undeveloped in the past is the fact that there is something in Durkheim’s project that could be easily understood in the light of critical theory and not only for the reasons that I mentioned before. Since its beginning, critical theory concerned the attempt to think about the relation between philosophy and sociology, understanding their cooperation as a form of engagement which allowed theory to actively and reflexively participate in the quest for social justice immanent to modern societies. For this reason, a main polemical target of critical theory has been represented by positivism, a conception of social science shaped on the model of natural sciences, reclaiming an understanding of objectivity based on the frontal opposition of science and reality.
In my view, Durkheim has been misleadingly associated with this kind of positivism. Instead, we should focus on why he understood the rise of sociology as being historically and politically determined by the fact that philosophical critique appeared to run empty when confronted with the systemic injustice of modern societies. Sociology appeared to him as a viable solution to make sense of the same quest for social justice, immanent to modern societies, that years after, critical theory intended to follow, in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. The reasons that made Durkheim invisible in this respect have to do, I think, with the influence that Max Weber had in the project of critical theory and with the fact that his neo-Kantian epistemology consented to maintain a Marxian conception of history while the revolutionary expectations of the working class were declining. While Durkheim has been brought back by Jurgen Habermas, this, in part, happened in the light of a reception of his thought that reduced the critical and political ethos of the French sociologist’s theory by inserting it in a normative theory of justice that, de facto, was opposed to the main assumptions of his intellectual scholarship.
In the last decades though, a new reception of Durkheim has been developing, showing that, far from being the kind of conservative and positivist thinker that many had considered him to be, his epistemological project consisted in attempting to show how sociology represented a way to liberate social critique from the false alternative of liberalism and nationalism, resituating it in the field of democratic socialism. Many friends and colleagues in the LIER (my group of research at the EHESS) such as Bruno Karsenti, Cyril Lemieux and Francesco Callegaro, have made significant steps in this direction long before me. Durkheim’s epistemological project seems unintelligible without situating its critical ethos within those socialist ideals to which it intended to contribute by offering them a new form of reflexivity. Durkheim’s main ambition had consisted in enabling new possibilities for social and political action without pretending to define the political agenda of socialism. This relation of sociological critique and democratic socialism appears compelling to me today, because we live in an era characterized by public debates alternatively presenting liberalism and nationalism as inescapable ideological presuppositions, standing in the background and most often blocking our attempts to promote social change.
To escape this dramatic impasse of social critique, philosophy has lately appeared to be more and more seduced by the temptation of fully abdicating from its relation to social sciences in name of some radical social ontology that obliterates all the empirical and historical observations provided by sociology without which, in my view, no viable understanding of human institutions can be achieved. Today, to bring politics back — the message that an entire generation from Hannah Arendt to Claude Lefort defended — entails bringing back social sciences in the project of a critical theory of society It looks like the Durkheimian sociological school could help us in this regard.
RM: One of your projects here will be to do archival work around sociologist and jurist Georges Gurvitch. Why are you planning on returning to his work? How does Gurvitch stand out amongst the scholars of the University in Exile at The New School? How did the climate of The New School influence Gurvitch and his sociological work?
If, for the reasons that I briefly sketched out, the Durkheimian school has to be associated with the realm of democratic socialism and, I would like to add, with a reflection on the epistemic consequences of the “discovery” of social rights, this intent went in part lost in the generation following the first World War. (However, it survived in some fundamental but isolated intellectual trajectories such as the one of Marcel Mauss.) Georges Gurvitch participated in a second period bringing new energies and ideas in the debate. When he arrived in France in the late ‘20s he had already participated, before leaving his country, in the germinal experience of the Soviets during the Russian Revolution, and he became a specialist in German phenomenology. Once in Paris he found, in the Durkheimian tradition, an intellectual framework to think through the relation between social rights and legal pluralism. This legacy shaped his vision and represents the background of some of its most important works written in the ’30s. When Gurvitch arrived in New York and participated in establishing the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes [a “university-in-exile” for French academics located at NSSR], this was his intellectual horizon.
Meanwhile in the ‘30s, a younger intellectual seemed confronted as well with the task of renewing the legacy of Durkheimism. His name was Claude Levi-Strauss. Around the beginning of the ‘40s, escaping Vichy France, both intellectuals came to NSSR. One of the things I’m doing in my actual research is trying to find some elements in the archives of The New School (I would like to thank Jenny Swadosh for her precious and generous help) and other archives (Yale and Rockefeller Foundation) concerning both Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss during their New York years, from ’40 to ‘45.
When Gurvitch arrived at NSSR, his work appears in full continuity with the political, critical, and socialist legacy of the Durkheimian school after the First World War. He originally elaborated this legacy and presented it to the American public, offering his defense of social rights and legal pluralism in different articles published in major journals. In the same years, Levi-Strauss was notably becoming familiar with the theories of Roman Jakobson, and his contribution to the debate on the French Sociological School seems to be already characterized by elements that, after the war, gave the tone to the structuralist turn in sociology and anthropology. In the same years, during his stay at NSSR, Gurvitch composed a sort of political manifesto, The Declaration of Social Right, hoping it would have contributed to the process of constitution-making of the French Fourth Republic.
Once back in France after the war, Gurvitch becomes professor of sociology at La Sorbonne, and Lévi-Strauss becomes the Lévi-Strauss we know: The Elementary Structures of Kinship is firstly published in 1949. Starting from the ‘50s, their intellectual collaboration ends and their relation is characterized by a growing disappointment and mutual criticism. Gurvitch did not succeed in renewing the Durkheim legacy in the way he probably had wished and the political expectations that nourished his ‘manifesto’ were not satisfied. His later works appear less interesting, mostly attempting to create an ambitious but very formal synthesis between his sociology and the Marxian tradition. There are no reasons to interrogate the success of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual project on the other hand, but the consequence of the transition to structuralism—as it already appears very clearly in Levi-Strauss’ introduction to Marcel Mauss, published in 1950 and prefaced by Georges Gurvitch himself—excluded some of the main political aspects that instead we have seen characterizing the intellectual and critical ethos of the Durkheimian school. The New School years of Gurvitch and Levi-Strauss represented the last appearance of the critical and political ethos of the French sociological school. NSSR represented the place where a reflection on the political legacy of the French Sociological School appeared before being interrupted and whose critical ambition appears today worth it to be re-explored.
RM: I have one more question I want to ask about teaching! It’s been about a month — how is your graduate Classical Sociology class going? How are you finding the students and discussions?
I’m having a great experience! It’s a great feeling to be physically back as a group of people sharing the same physical space, showing our faces — part of them at least — and discussing together after the full regime of isolation we have been exposed to for one year and a half. Secondly, I’m impressed by the attention and curiosity of many of my students. These two things are often separated. In some cases, students can be attentive but the respect for the authority of the teacher can somehow diminish their capability to perform and autonomously appropriate what is transmitted. In other cases, students’ eagerness to make sense, to intervene and to appropriate what they are learning can prevent them to fully acknowledge the autonomy of a text, its meaning and/or how to make sense of the intention of an author. Many of my students have shown both qualities at once, and for this reason they have taught me a lot.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
In 1988, Arien Mack had been editor of Social Research journal for almost 20 years when it occurred to her that organizing conferences would be one way to cultivate a wider audience, and a larger public voice, for the journal and The New School at large.
The topic of the first conference presented itself readily. Macksets the scene for me in a Zoom discussion: In 1988, thousands of people were dying from AIDS, the U.S. government was not acting, and there was much public hysteria stoked by misinformation and prejudice. A conference situating the epidemic in social history seemed like “a calmer and more effective response to the problem,” says Mack. So Social Research presented a conference and attendant journal issue called “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.”
Mack describes the conference as “very successful,” and it inaugurated a deeply involved series of conferences that then coalesced into the Center for Public Scholarship (CPS). Mack, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Director of the New University in Exile Consortium says this move followed the spirit of Alvin Johnson, co-founder and first president of The New School, who launched Social Research to provide the university with a public voice. CPS raised the money for the conference series with a mix of “work and luck,” as Mack tells it, and covered “a huge range of wonderful, fascinating subjects,” in her words. CPS also became one of several interdisciplinary centers and institutes at The New School for Social Research.
Now, after more than three decades of successful conferences and public lectures and events, CPS is wrapping up its programming.
Reflecting on standout conferences, Mack cited 2007’s “Punishment: The U.S. Record,” which invited professors of law, religion, and penal and social theory, as well as gathered writings from incarcerated individuals, to speak about the devastation wrought by mass incarceration in America.
In 2012, Mack established a branch of CPS called Public Voices, which sought to bring in singular, leading voices to discuss and think through the most urgent problems of the present. Mack fondly remembers a Public Voices event, one that “really mattered,” called “The Pros and Cons of US Universities Operating Campuses and Centers in Authoritarian Countries,” which discussed the extent to which universities with campuses in authoritarian countries are aiding and abetting, or complicit with, the oppressive regime.
CPS’s conference series attracted artists and academics alike. Mack says that the view of the Center was “very much to the outside, facing the world, trying to address these subjects” in “non technical, non academic,” but intellectual, terms. Poet John Hollander spoke at multiple conferences, including “Home, A Place in the World” in 1990, which approached the making and meaning of home amidst housing and migration crises, and one of Mack’s personal favorites, “In the Company of Animals” in 1995, which discussed animal rights and protections, our connection to them, their role in literature and religion, and more. A CPS conference on the artist’s necessary freedom of expression attracted artists such as Paul Chan, Ricardo Dominguez, Ai Weiwei, Shirin Neshat, and Chaw Ei Thein, and critics such as Holland Cotter. The 2019 conference, “Loyalty and Betrayal” coincided with The New School’s centennial celebration and featured a keynote address from Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Director of the FBI.
In 2020, CPS reissued the “In Time of Plague,” newly edited with analysis from experts on a wide range of subjects including, but not limited to, parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS epidemic. Read a past Research Matters story on the issue, and listen to Mack discuss the issue below.
The penultimate CPS event, a panel on the future of higher education that was part of the investiture of New School President Dwight A. McBride, took place on October 6, 2021. While Mack planned the final CPS conference and latest Social Research issue well before the pandemic, “it couldn’t have been more timely,” says Mack. The subject? Loneliness. Read more about the event and register here.
As CPS wraps up, Mack will have more time to focus on the New University in Exile Consortium, an initiative she launched in 2018 to shelter, connect, and support scholars whose political views threaten their livelihoods, or their lives. She put it bluntly: The choice to close CPS was difficult because her heart was in it, “but all things being equal and life getting shorter and shorter,” raising money for the Consortium — they’re currently trying to bring at-risk Afghan artists to The New School — is an urgent priority.
Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.
Tatiana Llaguno Nieves has been named a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellow by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The Newcombe Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for PhD candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. Each Fellow receives a 12-month award of $27,500 to support their final year of dissertation work.
Llaguno Nieves is a PhD candidate in political theory working under the supervision of Nancy Fraser, Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics. She is also pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her research areas include the history of political thought, social and political philosophy, critical theory, feminist theory, as well as critical approaches to capitalism.
“In my dissertation – provisionally titled ‘Paradoxes of Dependence: Towards a Political Theory of Our Dependent Condition’ – I propose to look at dependence as a generalized life experience and to systematize its study through an analysis of its subjective and objective dimension,” she explains. “I claim that we repudiate dependence not because it has an intrinsic connection to unfreedom, but because we experience it in an unsustainable manner in the context of alienated and asymmetrical social relations. I thus propose a normatively laden critique of the wrongness implied in our current organization of dependence and a reconceptualization of freedom, not opposed to but informed by our condition of dependence.”
Llaguno Nieves is spending a year as a visiting doctoral student at the Institut für Philosophie, Humboldt University of Berlin, under the supervision of Prof. Rahel Jaeggi and supported by a DAAD Long-term Doctoral Research Grant. Her research has also been supported by the Frank Altschul Dissertation Fellowship and a Fulbright Program doctoral fellowship.
She has developed and taught undergraduate courses at Pace University, the City University of New York, and The New School, from which she has received a 2019 Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award.
After a three year hiatus, the Memory Studies Group at The New School for Social Research regrouped and reemerged in March 2020. Less than a week after their first event, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world — and halted many of their plans.
“The idea for the Memory Studies Group came up…in Krakow, Poland, during the Democracy & Diversity Summer Institute in 2007,” recounts faculty advisor Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS), which conducts the annual summer study intensive. She had just taught her first class in collective memory. As her students walked through Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, they noticed a pattern: “…beautifully renovated buildings, various institutions, cafes, restaurants, and the streets were all named for its Jewish past. The only thing missing was the Jewish people, who had been taken to the Nazi concentration camps, and murdered there. It became visible to us then, this uncanny presence of absence.”
This experience sparked an interest in memory among Institute students, who became the founding cohort of an independent Memory Studies Group: Amy Sodaro, Sociology PhD 2011; Lindsey Freeman, Sociology & Historical Studies PhD 2013; Yifat Gutman, Sociology PhD 2012; Alin Coman, Psychology PhD 2010, and Adam Brown, Psychology PhD 2008 and now Associate Professor of Psychology at NSSR. They organized a conference in the group’s first year, where scholars discussed questions like “Which past is official? What is it that we remember? How do we forget when we are not allowed to remember? How do groups remember their history when their memory is being repressed, and what is happening to people whose very existence is repressed from memory?”
When Malkhaz Toria, group coordinator and a Sociology MA student, came to NSSR as a Fulbright scholar in 2011, the Memory Studies Group became an intellectual home for him. “That inspired me to establish a similar sort of group at my home university, Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia,” he says; he also heads that university’s Memory Center.
Upon his return to NSSR in 2019, Toria was instrumental in reviving the group, which had gone on a brief hiatus. Now part of TCDS, the group has new core members of Franzi König-Paratore, Sociology PhD student; Elisabeta “Lala” Pop, Politics PhD student; Malgorzata Bakalarz Duverger, sociologist, art historian, and Sociology PhD 2017; Chang Liu, Sociology MA student; and Karolina Koziura, Sociology and Historical studies PhD student.
“Our goal is also to have some continuity of the transnational and transdisciplinary projects and exchange that Sodaro and Freeman envisioned and implemented when they were steering the group,” König-Paratore says. “My hope is that the group continues to connect past and present members. I personally hope that we open up the group more for professionals or cultural workers outside of academia.”
The revived group’s first and only in-person event was a March 2020 book launch for Museums and Sites of Persuasion, which was edited Sodaro and Joyce Apsel, and includes work by Alexandra Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at the School of Public Engagement, Toria, and many others. Since then, the group has held several online lectures and webinars and on discourses within the field, from a look at revisionist narratives in Russia to an examination of how Frida Wunderlich — the first female economist at NSSR and a founding member of the University in Exile — is remembered.
Memory Studies: A Transdisciplinary Field
Memory Studies spans disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities to explore the ways collective memory is constructed, experienced, repressed, and rebuilt. “The complex field of memory studies employs whole repertoire of approaches from different disciplines including comparative literature, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and politics, among other areas, to address the multifaceted phenomena of both individual and collective memories ,” Toria says. Matynia describes the field as “transdisciplinary.”
For example, Silvana Alvarez Basto, Liberal Studies MA student, looks at the intersections between politicization of art, history, and visual representations of memory in her home country of Colombia. “The topic of memory is very popular right now, since in 2016 the government ended an armed conflict with the FARC,” she says. Her research focuses on the construction of Simón Bolívar’s image as a national symbol across Latin America, in groups like the FARC and beyond. “I’m interested in how his face has become a guiding locus or a symbol for these movements,” Alvarez Basto explains. While her work has primarily dealt with 19th century portraits of Bolívar, she has recently begun looking at the ways “new technologies modify our relationship with canonical images and with the Western tradition of painted portraits.”
Toria works on the role of memory construction in authoritarian regimes and their aftermaths. Collective memory, he explains, does not come into existence organically. “It’s controlled and dependent on political conjunctures…Across the globe, if you have a totalitarian government, they are more keen to control how you remember.” His research looks at citizens in countries that were part of the Soviet Union. “Ukrainians, Georgians, and Estonians have different pictures of the past and past relationships with Russia. That’s why these clashes in questions of the past happen; it is quite a universal mechanism.”
“My first encounter with the Memory Studies Group at the New School was in 2009 when I was pursuing an MA degree. Through the [group] and TCDS I became connected with the interdisciplinary research and networks of the field and it greatly influenced my own MA thesis work,” Pop explains. “Now [that] I’m back at NSSR, I’m excited to be part of the team of graduate students continuing the group’s work and re-launching its activities.”
Memory Studies Today
Memory Studies takes on particular relevance in periods of upheaval, when democracies come into existence or are threatened, when social movements gain power, or when societies experience unprecedented change — periods like today.
Matynia points to several factors that make the current moment crucial for the field. Many countries have experienced what Matynia calls “de-democratization,” under the influence of dictators and “would-be dictators” who weaponize collective memory. “Politics of history and politics of memory became a part of the playbook of many dictators and aspiring dictators,” she explains.
Additionally, social movements have begun exposing and dismantling parts of the past that had been manipulated or repressed out of collective memory. Think of activists taking down statues of Confederate leaders in the U.S, slaveholders in the U.K., and a conquistador in Colombia. “There’s this rippling where people want to ask, ‘what does it mean to memorialize these figures?’” Alvarez Basto says.
Memory Studies doesn’t just look at the past; the field is equally interested in the ways that people form collective memory now in preparation for the future. The massive shift in March 2020 into lockdown and onto Zoom inspired the group’s April 21 conference, “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Speakers will include Marci Shore, Associate Professor of History at Yale University; Hana Cervinkova, Professor of Anthropology at Maynooth University; and Juliet Golden, Director of the Central Europe Center at Syracuse University.
Toria explains, “There’s a kind of eternal presence that feels never-ending. Our world is reduced to these small screens, where our lives are… We’ll cover multifaceted aspects of Memory Studies in this new light, the context of the pandemic, like problems of democracy, remembrance, the problem of forgetting, shifting senses of time and space, and new issues in memory discourse surrounding gender and race.”
“We call it memory studies, but so much of what we think we are rooted in and call our past actually projects into the future,” Matynia adds. “So which past will we download as we moveout of today’s situation, and draw upon as a springboard for reinventing our intellectual lives, spiritual lives, and social lives?”
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.