Memory Studies Group Looks to the Past to Build the Future

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.

Now, just over a year later, the revived group will hold their first conference this April: “Suspended Present: Downloading the Past and Gaming the Future in a Time of Pandemic.” Research Matters spoke about with group members and leaders about the group’s history, its current projects, and its future.  

The History of the Memory Studies Group

“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, Linguine and Tortellini.  

NSSR Student Karolina Koziura Wins Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellowship

Karolina Koziura has won a Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna to work on her dissertation, tentatively titled “Erasing Disaster: The Global Production of Silence and the Great Ukrainian Famine.” From June through October 2021, Koziura will focus on her research, which explores “the production of silence and denial of disasters as shaped by political, media, and scientific narratives.”

Koziura is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. The roles of political memory and constructed narratives in Central and Eastern Europe play a central role in her work, which has also included a project on the Great Ukrainian Famine. Her work has appeared in many publications, including East European Politics and Societies, Culture, and Ukraina Moderna.  Her advisor is Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology. Koziura is also part of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies group at NSSR, organized by Jessica Pisano, Associate Professor of Politics.

Koziura has received an NSSR Prize Fellowship (2014-2017) and the Integrative PhD Fellowship (2018-2020). Her research has also been supported by an American Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Association Dissertation Research Grant and the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.


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, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

“Power and the Politics of Care” Panel, the ISPPO’s first event, took place on November 13, 2020 with panelists Monica Atkins, Christopher Paul Harris, and Miriam Ticktin.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.

NSSR Politics Alum Camila Gripp Wins Dissertation Award

Camila Gripp (Politics PhD 2019) has received the 2020 Best Dissertation Award from the Urban and Local Politics Section of the American Political Science Association (APSA), the leading professional organization for the study of politics.

In her dissertation, entitled “New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Inner Workings of an Attempt at Police Reform in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Gripp explores the failed implementation of a comprehensive public security initiative that sought to impose a new kind of community policing in Brazil’s second largest city, and to reclaim territory from criminal organizations through military force. The APSA committee called her research “an incredibly important case about a significant question, with policy implications for police reform, both in Latin America and the Global South, and beyond.” Gripp also received NSSR’s Hannah Arendt Award in Politics for her dissertation.

“I was not expecting it at all!” says Gripp about the APSA honor. But David Plotke, Professor of Politics and one of her NSSR advisors was not surprised. “It’s great that Camila Gripp’s excellent dissertation has been recognized in this way,” Plotke says. “Her work makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of how to reform and regulate policing, and her insights travel across contexts and countries.”

Bringing Qualitative Research to Politics

After finishing her PhD and delivering a heartfelt address as Student Speaker at NSSR’s 2019 Recognition Ceremony, Gripp dove directly into a new job as Senior Research Associate at the Justice Collaboratory of the Yale Law School. There, she is involved in several research projects on criminal justice, including a study to improving communications and trust-building interactions between corrections staff and incarcerated persons in Connecticut, and an interview-based project on how frontline workers of six key institutions in New York City’s criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officers, probation officers and Criminal Justice Agency interviewers — perceive the legitimacy of their roles and the institutions in which they work. She’s also helping increase the role of everyday people in decisions around policing and justice via community based participatory action research.

Qualitative research is key to Gripp’s work. She spent one year doing ethnographic fieldwork for her dissertation, including 800 hours of observation while embedded with Rio police officers, as well as 80 interviews with officers and 30 interviews with civilians. The APSA committee was impressed with “the in-depth nature of her ethnographic field work, which involved considerable risk,” stating that Gripp “provided a model discussion of how she conducted ethnographic research, including ethical tensions that can arise, the challenges of gaining sufficient access and trust to study policing, and a thoughtful consideration of her positionality.”

Gripp credits the interdisciplinary nature of her NSSR education with helping her develop this particular skill set. “I’m originally an economist who became a political scientist, and now I work at a law school. This is not a regular trajectory!” she laughs. “This is only possible because I wasn’t constrained by the frames of a certain discipline. I really had an opportunity to study with different scholars, take different classes, and have conversations at other departments.” 

Two NSSR faculty members in particular — Plotke and Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics — mentored Gripp as a student, and she continues to turn to them for guidance today. “I often contact them to talk about career perspectives, publications and next steps,” she says. Plotke also officially submitted her dissertation for the APSA award consideration.

The Future of Policing

Gripp’s work on policing is gaining more attention as movements to defund and abolish the police gain traction across the United States. While she is supportive of discussions on these topics, she is also cautious around demands for immediate change. “I think we don’t necessarily know yet how much communities that need police rely on the police, and what replacing the police with different services would look like,” she says. “The retreat of the role of police needs to come with a reframing of what it means to be a police officer.”

Gripp warns about expanding the social services functions of police officers without proper funding and support, citing her dissertation research. “By having police officers [in Rio] performing functions not generally associated with police, they thought they could bring the police closer to the poor communities and instill empathy in police officers,” she says. Ultimately, the opposite happened; police officers were not given appropriate support to take on their new role, their organizational structure did not support internal procedural justice, and officers progressively shortchanged the innovative model. U.S. cities must think carefully about the role we want police officers to have in communities, Gripp says. We may not want them to take on roles that can be performed by other agencies, but we also do not want them to see themselves as only armed, almost militaristic, enforcement officers who do not need to address other community problems.

She hopes U.S. cities will choose a positive path, and believes strongly in the real-world impact of her work at Yale. Read more in the Justice Collaboratory’s latest report, “Changing the Law to Change Policing: First Steps.”

Federico Finchelstein on his new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies

In an interview with NSSR students, Finchelstein discusses the changing nature of truth

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History, returns to studying the history of fascism to understand the current political moment. His new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020) is a companion to his 2019 book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press). This latest work explores the new terrain of “post-truth” and “fake news,” while investigating the long lineage of fascist leaders weaponizing lies.

Emmanuel Guerisoli, Sociology and History PhD candidate, and Ihor Andriichuk, Politics PhD student, sat down over Zoom with Finchelstein to discuss the inspiration behind his research and how lies define politics today.

Left to right: Guerisoli and Andriichuk

Listen to the full conversation here:


An excerpt of the edited transcript of the discussion is below

***

On why this book, now 

Guerisoli: I wanted to start with a basic question. You mention at the beginning of the book a series of events like the El Paso shooting and a Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that in a way triggered the idea to write this book. Do you want to talk more about that, why you’re writing this book now?

Finchelstein: Those events happened almost by the end of the writing…This [book] is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists, what makes that fascism successful? One of the issues that makes it successful is that these outrageous ideas become a matter of belief. They spread throughout, motivating a lot of people to not only believe, but also to kill in its name, to exert a lot of violence in its name. So the two examples that you mention, Emmanuel, are rather examples from the end of the story. 

This book is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists

Finchelstein

….After finishing my work, From Fascism to Populism in History, I wanted to return to some questions that I have been addressing before. This started in a way with a conference that I gave in Italy in the mid-2000s. This was like a longer question of why people believe in fascism and why that belief moves beyond empirical demonstration to be a world of fantasy which, ironically, is believed and presented as true.

Andriichuk: You mention at the very end of the book that you actually started working on this book in 2013, after this conference in Italy. In the introduction, you say that fascists and populists are playing in a league of their own. And if to speak from today about 2013 and the period between those dates, is this league increasing or declining?

Finchelstein:  What I mean by that is that all politicians lie. And lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies. I think that is an important distinction. The other part of that distinction is that not only do these people believe in their lies, but also they believe that their lies are the truth. Even reality does not correlate to that belief, hat they do is try to change reality and in the book I present many examples of this.

Lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies.

Finchelstein

One of them is one of the most dramatic assumptions of these beliefs…is the belief in an anti-Semitic lie…that states that Jews are dirty and they spread disease. They are sometimes presented a virus themselves. This is a lie, and hat the Nazis did with this is to create an artificial war in which this lie could turn into a reality. Jews were, of course, not spreading disease per se, but once they were put in horrible conditions, in ghettos and concentration camps, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have sanitary conditions and so on and so forth. They eventually became ill and certainly spread disease, but they only did so not because that was true, but rather because the Nazis turned their lies into situations which became the truth. But that truth itself is a lie because it’s the effect or the outcome of turning lies into reality.

On believing lies

Guerisoli: Something that I found really quite striking from your book is…that you make a difference that lying is something that also liberalism does. But as you just said, liberalism doesn’t believe…

Finchelstein: Or communism.

Guerisoli: Exactly, they don’t believe their own lies. One could…say, well, liberalism or 

communism might be hypocritical, but fascism is a dangerous, sincere type of ideology. The issue is that what you are saying is that also the lying is racist, it is based on this idea that certain communities of people, certain races, certain ethnicities, are superior or have a sacred space in the world. Their leaders appear able to reveal a “sacred old truth” that certain spaces or certain people are sacred and therefore they need to act upon it. And this is, going back to the El Paso and Christchurch shootings, the idea of the replacement theory, that these people believe that migrants or foreigners of people who are not white or Christians are invading and spreading disease, or contaminating, polluting the romanticized idea of their society.

Finchelstein: ….This is exactly what I want to say. It involves racism because fascism historically has been racist. So basically, the idea of truth in fascism, which is, of course, a lie for the rest of us, is a racist lie. It involves demonization, discrimination, and racism. And there uou see the connection between the past and the present. 

And here I would like to stress a distinction between the current populism and far-right populism, the current one…I mean Trump, I mean Bolsonaro, I mean Orban, I mean Narendra Modi and others, is that as opposed to most populists in history — starting with Juan Peron to Silvio Berlusconi or Hugo Chavezmeaning populism left and right — they did not exactly engage with lies in the same way. They were much more pragmatic, closer to the liberalism way of lying. Whereas what Trump and Bolsonaro share, not with the populists in history but with the fascists themselves is the idea, this belief in their own lies. A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump. But Trump himself exposes himself to the disease because he doesn’t wear a mask. There you have a perfect demonstration of how he believes in his own lies. 

I think here you see the connection between populism and fascism in a very particular way. The current populism, the current post-fascism, is very different to the post-fascist populism of the past. It’s different in the sense that it is racist, it glorifies violence and also lies as fascists lie.

That connects them not only with the fascists of the past…but also with the fascists of the present, as these terrorists that you were talking about. So this terrorism involves the same lies and even kill, as the fascists did, for these lies. But these lies are also the lies that are being involved by Trump. I mean, this idea of replacement, this idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s even verbatim, that these terrorists use the same words that Trump is using. So Trump is not responsible for their violence, but is enabling it. I mean, he’s not legally responsible for the violence, but he has a responsibility…He’s spreading the same lies as they do.

A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump.

Finchelstein

On the psychoanalytic history of lying

Andriichuk: ….In the book…you’re stressing that this kind of fascist lie and populist lie is not conscious or intentional. So the person who is lying does not necessarily imply there is a lie. So there is not necessarily a knowledge of this lie.

Finchelstein: Sometimes. 

Andriichuk: So it’s kind of subconscious or a gray area. You approach this matter from a psychoanalytical point, and this matter is revealing. My question would be what those populist or fascist lies might reveal in themselves. 

Finchelstein: So there are a couple of things….From Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, at some level…they recognize that these lies were lies. But even then, the idea was that these lies were servicing the truth, or were enabling the truth, or were at the service of the truth. Sometimes in a minimal way, they were acknowledging to some extent that they were lying for the truth, rendering these in a way smaller than the truth, which was an ideological one, such as racism. Even if this particular person is not spreading disease at the current moment, they insisted on the fact that this person was spreading disease because at the end of the day, what mattered was the big truth, as they understood it. Even Hitler himself will say about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is one of the craziest lies of anti-Semitism and racism…When they asked Hitler about this, Hitler would say, “Even if there are aspects of the Protocols that are not correct or true, they speak to a greater truth.” …. Now, regarding the question of psychoanalysis, as you know from the book, there are different levels of this. The book is about how the fascists understood their lying, but also how anti-fascists at the time were trying to think about the lies of fascism. Among these anti-fascists, many of them were very interested in psychoanalysis, starting, of course, with Freud…but also people like Adorno, people like Mariátegui…Many of them thought that the concepts of psychoanalysis and its approach to the unconscious could help us understand this irrational belief in a form of truth that basically rejects empirical demonstration but have faith as truth in emerging in the inner being. 

Traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist.

Finchelstein

At the beginning of the book, I quote Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. I compare their understanding of the truth, which of course is quite similar. The truth is not being based on empirical demonstration. Perhaps the most explicit among the three of them…is Trump, who says, “Don’t believe in what you are seeing.” How can you not believe in what you are seeing?..This is extremely irrational, and the unconscious has an important role to play… The other level is that…the fascists themselves were quite obsessed with psychoanalysis. There is a chapter on this issue…and why they thought that psychoanalysis was so problematic for fascism.

Guerisoli: …I wanted to point out that this issue connects to the idea of race, because in the end,… the concern is that Freud is attacking the idea of myth, but particularly what is sacred to fascists, which in this sense would be the nation, particularly for fascists. It’s not that Freud is directly attacking fascists, although in the end he will, but that

by attacking the idea of anything that is sacred as something that is not truth, then what fascists are saying is that “Freud is saying this because he’s a Jew and not loyal to the nation and therefore he’s a virus in our own societies. And you see going around not just in Europe, but also in Latin America, with the clerical fascism types, from Mexico to Argentina. 

With the case of Trump, or at least today…you mentioned also that what’s most dangerous is this relationship between conspiracy theories that are believed by a lot of people, but then public officials like Bolsanaro or Trump talk about them as if not facts, but as possibilities that should be addressed and discussed as they have enough evidence of any other type of historical facts. You add to that liberal societies with new media, you have the perfect environment for these to become mainstream, like birther conspiracy and everything else.

Finchelstein: The point here and the problem here is that it’s very hard to discuss lies. Generally, in a rational discussion…arguments need to be supported by facts. Now, if you have on one hand an anti-fascist critique that is supported by facts, and on the other hand pure racist fantasies and xenophobic fantasies, on the other hand there is no middle ground. So that’s why, sometimes,  traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist. Because quite simply, as many of the anti-fascists from the 1970s and 40s pointed out ,on one side, there is the truth and on the other one is fascist lies….you will see sometimes  the New York Times…when Trump says something outrageous, or I will say, Trump says something outrageous about the coronavirus. So Trump says there is a miracle cure; experts disagree, somehow implying there are two sides. There are not two sides. Trump is lying; science tells you otherwise.


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz