(The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry [ICSI] is a program getting under way at the New School for Social Research, where advanced graduate students and junior faculty will have the opportunity to spend a week at The New School’s campus in Greenwich Village, New York City, working closely with some of the most distinguished thinkers shaping the course of contemporary social inquiry (you can apply here — they have financial aid!). Its director, Ann Stoler is a historian/anthropologist whose work has had a tremendous impact on how anthropologists and historians think about history and colonialism. Her writing has also been one key route through which Foucault’s work has come to be known in anthropology. I talked recently with Ann about ICSI and ‘theory’ more generally. Here’s what we said -R)
Rex: So, tell me about the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry [ICSI].
Ann: Well, the Institute has been in the making for about two years. It’s a response to what I see as a pervasive problem in our academic world — given the demands of fast-paced publishing coupled with overstretched teaching loads for many young scholars in the making. How do we get to learn about the things that we’ve always imagined we should know, and that we don’t? The things we haven’t had time for in our careers, because we’ve been too busy being “productive” and teaching our courses? It’s modeled on the notion that if we can provide a master who knows about a particular subject or thinker really well, a range of people would have a wonderful opportunity to have access in a short amount of time to someone whose conceptual vocabulary and “styles of thought” could be drawn on to address pressing questions that engaged social inquiry should be addressing now. The Institute is geared, as it stands, for advanced doctoral students and junior faculty across the disciplines but we have already had queries from tenured professors excited by the prospect of working for an intensive week with the thinkers who will teach these Master Classes.
One of the models for this sort of project is The School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell where I had the pleasure of teaching several years ago. The SCT summer school is six weeks. At Cornell, each year four faculty each conduct a twice-weekly seminar on chosen issues. It’s a wonderful environment for reading and writing and conversation if one has enough time to do it.
Our idea is somewhat different. The focus of the ICSI seminars is both more intensive and perhaps less about theory with a capital ‘T’, than about how conceptual work can be harnessed to think innovatively about grounded social inquiry. The emphasis in our seminars is to offer the methodological traction participants can garner by thinking with others in one of three seminars, each exploring a different form of critical social inquiry that focuses on contemporary issues, subjects, and political configurations. The ICSI takes as its charge introducing a new generation to “masters”, whose thinking in and about other historical moments might challenge seminar participants to think differently about their perceptions and practices today. I am using the term “master” in two senses here: the “master” is both, first, the person giving the seminar, sharing with participants how he or she each sees and works with and against, a particular thinker, and second, the thinker around whose work the seminar focuses (e.g., Marx, Hegel, Derrida, Arendt, Fanon, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Foucault—someone whose work you haven’t been able to devote the time to examine closely).
This dual sense of master is a large part of what is exciting about ICSI. It’s a kind of immersion in the conceptual capacity that someone offers. Our goal is to reach a range of scholars; from those embarking on their dissertations, those just returning from the field or the archive, both junior and senior faculty bogged down by having to teach too many courses. I see the ICSI as a joining of scholars from the Global North and Global South, sharing a dense infused intellectual environment.
In this sense, ICSI is both an analytic and a political project. What does being critical mean right now? What does it mean not to think about “theory” with a capital T disengaged from practical problems in the contemporary world. Instead, the goal is to see how those problems articulate with the conceptual vocabularies with which we work.
There’s play here with the idea of “masters on masters.” To participate in a seminar on Heidegger taught by Simon Critchley — or more accurately Critchley in conversation with Heidegger–is a unique opportunity. Talal Asad and Patricia Williams, on the other hand, take key issues, secularism for Asad, race for Williams, and will provide participants with the critical problematics that confront us all in thinking these issues today.
The format is a one-week intensive seminar, three-and-a-half to four hours in the morning — part lecture, part reading a chosen set of texts. The afternoon is devoted to the work of participants, an opportunity to share their own work and reflect on how the questions raised in the morning seminars might help them think their own projects. The design is also inspired in some ways by a vibrant summer workshop in Johannesburg that Achille Mbembe has run for many years, in which students and faculty from a range of disciplines come together. A sliding tuition scale permits students from the Global South to participate. That too is how the ICSI will operate, although in our case we have an endowment that allows us to charge all students far below the actual cost. Housing is also provided. The seminars will be at the New School’s new University Center in the heart of New York City. Each of the three faculty will give a public lecture during the week. On the last day there will be an open forum for students and faculty from each of the three seminars to reflect together on the styles of thinking and critique offered. Bruno Latour may think critique is dead but I think there should be room to question when critique is effective and when and why it is not.
Rex: This is the first year it’s being offered, is that right?
Ann: Yes, it’s the first year this is being launched. First years are always precarious. You have to get the word out, and you have to let people know about it. The first week that we launched the website, we had a tremendous response, and we’ve continued to field inquiries daily, so something about it is inciting interest. We have quite a number of applications already and have switched to rolling admissions with a final deadline in February. We’ve also had the good fortune to receive another small gift, so we’ve been able to reduce the tuition somewhat more than we originally thought.
Rex: You know, that process of trying to find some way to balance the tuition with people’s ability to pay sounds really like an important part of the project. Can you tell me more about how that works in your case? There’s financial aid for which people can apply.
Ann: As I said, there is a sliding scale for tuition, depending on whether applicants are at institutions in the Global North or the Global South. Additionally, there are some funds for travel grants. This is not a money-making enterprise: it’s a political and intellectual one that may some day break even, but right now what we care about is getting people eager to think together and aloud across the disciplines.
A wonderfully innovative trustee of the New School for Social Research generously provided the ICSI’s endowment. Additionally, literally as we speak, she has brought a broader group of donors on board whose gifts have allowed us, as I mentioned earlier, to lower the costs to all participants. Our trustees and donors understand that part of the mission of the New School is to offer an intellectual vitality to a much wider range of people than those who can afford to come to graduate school in New York City. Scholars-in-the-making may get to attend the crowded lecture of a luminary or ask a rushed question if they can get to the podium in time to beat out others, but rarely to converse in depth, on a daily basis with important figures such as Talal Asad, Patricia Williams, Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, and Gayatri Spivak. At the moment we have enough internationally renowned “masters” to cover nearly four years of seminars.
The small seminar format is designed to facilitate and activate interaction and exchange. Each seminar will have a facilitator (probably a New School doctoral student), who will create a ‘living archive’ of extra readings referenced for current and future use. We want this to be a resource in multiple senses: of connections between people and materials from different fields. The model is one of density, intensity, and exhilaration in a concentrated amount of time.
With feedback from each summer’s participants, we image that the format will be tweaked and expanded. We scheduled it for June so that people will have finished their coursework and/or teaching, and to avoid impinging on the summer months when so much writing and research is done.
Next year in June 2016, we will have Jay Bernstein, a “master” on Hegel whose online lectures are famous for the clarity and scope. Jay’s ICSI seminar of course won’t be a reading of all of Hegel, but a focused immersion led by someone renowned for teaching Hegel for twenty years. Someone who knows how to open up some of those spaces imagined tobe impenetrable to those of us who have not studied those particular thinkers.
Rex: That really sounds like that’s part of the “master on a master” thing. You’re not only learning how Hegel thinks, you’re getting to see how a scholar who’s an expert on him thinks, how they interpret the text, how maybe you can approach it in the future wearing their goggles.
Ann: It’s really a matter of someone with a facility, capacity, and passion. I’m not just interested in any teacher. We’re seeking those who see this as an opportunity to teach in a completely different venue. If you’ve taught Fanon for fifteen years, you come to it with a well-honed ability to convey why he matters. And central to that effort is addressing the simple and searing question, to borrow David Scott words, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” It’s not that we are in the business of conflict resolution. We’re really in the business, I think, of learning how to ask better questions, to learn to hear the phrasing and force of the concerns of those most disadvantaged in our inequitable world – the questions they themselves may well know how to pose. I see our other task as one of making those things that seem so obvious to us more open to doubt, uncertainty, and inquiry.
Rex: I guess that’s where the concept of “critical” in the title comes in. I imagine there are some people who’d say reading Heidegger for a week with other professors or other PhD students isn’t really a kind of critical political engagement. But you really have a vision of what it means to do critical studies where you do see that as being very relevant and important. Can you expand on that?
Ann: I think Heidegger offers a way of formulating a question, with a degree of deliberation that permanently changes your sensibility. What Heidegger does is both unravel grammar, and in unraveling grammar, unravels and opens up spaces and clearings of how one can bring something into thought again.
Rex: It seems that on the one hand you see the value of theory and criticism in one sense, but you’ve been very critical of the way that theory is taught or used — you see the potential for it to go astray sometimes.
Ann: Well, I think it is an issue of pedagogy. I think “great thinkers” are often taught as if they are providing a ready toolkit — it’s actual a phrase that Foucault unfortunately used. But these toolkits are not fixed, they’re not portable in some decontextualized way. It’s not students who go awry, it’s in how these concepts are often taught. I think of concept work, working with concept, as a much more provisional and creative project.
That’s one of things I so admire in Talal Asad’s work on suffering, pain, and liberalism. I think much the same is true of the way that Simon Critchley takes Heidegger’s often intractable language on being and non-being and finds ways to see how it matters in the world today. Patricia Williams makes a similar move in her exploration of the legal, political and rhetorical framings that infuse how subjects are conceptualized. These are scholars with decidedly political sensibilities; for example, Simon crafts The Stone blog for the New York Times, Patricia writes for The Nation. I think we need this broad range of genres through which we can be public intellectuals in a different kind of way.
Rex: In my experience, oftentimes students feel like they need ‘theory’, and sometimes professors don’t want to teach it. I know when I was at Chicago I felt like I needed more theory and my professors didn’t really want to teach a course on Foucault and I thought, “but you guys keep on talking about this guy, why won’t you tell me what he’s saying”? Now as a professor, my students are like, “don’t we need to read more Bourdieu”? And I’m like, “oh my god, I don’t want to teach a whole course on Bourdieu.”
So maybe there’s some sort of weird social dynamic going on here? On the one hand we demonstrate to our students that they have to do some theory, and at the same time we’re reluctant to give it to them — maybe because we know it’s not what they really need to do? It seems like there’s something maybe potentially not so healthy going on in the way we teach theory.
Ann: This concern pervades all of my teaching, particularly how to impart in a way that offers skills in how to unthink as well as to think what’s already there. Many anthropologists, not unreasonably, want to unsettle what often seems obvious and given. I think it takes work to convey the ways in which you can stop and pause, and work with something, rather than work off it.
Rex: Work ‘with something’ and not ‘off of it’?
Ann: ‘Working off it’ is saying “OK, I’m going to take this concept and then I’m going to impose it on my case study.”
Rex: I guess there is a question of connecting this project to anthropology. It sounds like sometimes people are taking the thinkers that you’ve mentioned and trying to do a natural science project with them, saying “here is a theoretical framework, which we’re going to use to analyze the data and make sense of it, and then we use the data to improve the model,” and it sounds like you’re saying, that’s not how we should be using those thinkers.
Ann: That’s right.
Rex: So for people who aren’t in New York and don’t get a chance to have a sense of this other way of using theory — is that how anthropology articulates with ICSI? That we’re trying to think of a different way of using theory to deal with our field experience? I’m not even going to say ‘data’, but ‘field experience’?
Ann: I see the impulse of the ICSI as one that speaks to various forms of knowledge production. In a book manuscript I just finished, I use the subtitle “concept work for our times,” trying to imagine what it is to do concept work, and particularly doing it with those concepts on which, in this case, some students of colonial and postcolonial situations so depend.
Those who know my work would not be surprised that I still return to think with and against Foucault. By placing an “ethics of discomfort” center stage, he challenges his audience to find a way of working outside the comfort zone of the familiar. Instead, he insists on places that produce a kind of intellectual vertigo or malaise; places where we not only lack ready answers, we don’t even know if our questions are the right ones to be asking. One of the hardest tasks is to find concrete ways of doing this. And I think here we are well served by reading for styles of thought, styles of thinking, styles of reasoning. George Steiner reminds us that there is poetry in thought, and that thoughtful reading will reveal it in the worlds that we inhabit as ethnographers, philosophers, historians, geographers, and literary critics.
I imagine the ICSI seminars as providing a tenor and tone that invites and values that kind of thinking.
Rex: The New School is a place where people have been trying to do this for a long time. On the one hand, I’m always imagining other voices, maybe somebody who would say “Well, this is the death of anthropology, it’s the death of relevance, it’s the death of empiricism.” I’m sure you’ve heard these criticisms before: “Poetic thinking, what is that? We need to know what the per capita calorie intake is.” But the New School is a place where people have been engaged in this for a long time. It’s a place that has its origins with a lot of original anthropological thinkers like Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser who are also intellectual and cosmopolitan.
Ann: I don’t see it as the death of anthropology in any way, obviously. Social inquiry is inspired by thinking in a grounded way. This is not just abstract thinking. There is nothing transcendental about philosophy. There’s nothing that should stand outside “worldliness,” as Edward Said put it. It is incumbent on us as scholars to be engaged, otherwise it doesn’t really matter.
The ICSI is an invitation to ask what critique might look like in an “effective” mode. Raymond Williams said it beautifully; that critique is not about judgment. Judith Butler, in her consummately unadorned fashion, in “What is Critique?” reminds us, critique is a way of disclosing those very spaces that are secluded from us. That’s the task of the ICSI.
Rex: I think that point that it’s not abstract or transcendental, but it’s grounded in the concrete — that’s the anthropological argument that theory has to be connected somehow to ethnography or to lived experience in the field. I think that’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand about that work.
Ann: A radical pedagogy is demanding, exhilarating, arduous. Critique, which Foucault once called the art of reflective insubordination (or insolence.), is insolence toward ourselves, toward our own givens, toward the baggage that we come with. It seems like it has to be something that we have to think collectively and cooperatively–but not consensually–about.
Rex: What genre is this seminar? Is it a summer session? Is it a field school? A reading group? Listening to you talk it really seems to me, as a Melanesianist, that this sounds like a men’s house. It sounds like ritual initiation: we’re going get you all together for a week. You know, lots of things happen in the men’s house… probably some of which you don’t want to emulate…
I’ve been working on Jung lately and it reminds me of Bollingen, or the teacher’s tisch in the old German academy, where there is this conscious attempt to really make it not just about the text, but about creating a liminal atmosphere, as Victor Turner said, where incredible things can happen and people feel like they’re in a new place.
Ann: I don’t think of it as a field school. And though it is an intensive week in June, I don’t think of it as a summer session either. I love the concept of a Master Class in the arts. You learn from a skilled, experienced craftsman or artist, learning that comes with frequency and care and opens to improvisation. As for ‘masters’ of social inquiry, we can see it in their movement, a conceptual grace if you will, as they move between exposition and doubt, in the texts they juxtapose and the work that goes into formulating good questions. There’s a beauty in a master classes, an attentiveness to gesture, vocabulary (of body and mind) and tone.
In a dance master class, it’s also an atmosphere, a particular way of acquiring competence. There’s also much that the master gets back from the students. The master becomes a better thinker when s/he enables and animates students to question in particular ways. That’s the real feedback. I would hope that the luminaries we invite will see the possibility for this kind of exchange.
So for me, initiating and directing this new institute feels like a labor of love. I’ll be present for all of it: at the morning seminars, the afternoon workshops, and the sundry meals and gatherings that happen in between. I’ll also host an open coffee/tea hour for whoever wants to stop by. I want it to be fun and fertile, fostering a disposition that doesn’t end when the week is over.
Rex: You mentioned earlier that these people are at a certain point in their career where they’re ready for this, maybe because they feel like they’ve already reproduced themselves through their graduate students and they want to address a broader audience, or maybe pass on what they do in a different way than just—
Ann: You’re right –that’s what I’m looking for. People who know enough to know what they don’t know; and people who are not or no longer entranced with cultivating a following. For the faculty, it’s really a chance to undo yourself. There’s a beautiful book, Examined Lives, by my New School colleague, James Miller, in which he looks at the ways in which philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche developed practices of living that infused their analytic and conceptual labor. And of course the other way around.
Rex: On the one hand, there is a sort of sense that you know who you are, you have tenure, you feel comfortable in your skin. But sometimes the people I’ve met who are so good at conveying this sort of master class feel, where they walk in, they speak for 30 minutes, they lay it out for you, and your mind is blown—sometimes I feel like it’s not because they’re undoing themselves. I come from a much more conservative intellectual tradition, I think, than the one you’re citing here, so let me resist that language of undoing just for the moment.
I feel like it’s because they figured out what the central question in their life is. They realized that they’re probably never going to solve it, but they have cleared out all this space. They know it’s not this, it’s not that, and so they can just present it to you and be like: “How can we be different and equal? How do we turn a script into a lived experience?” It’s sort of that core self, that incredible coherence they have, even though ultimately this coherence is about a question and not an answer. You know? “Well, I read Kant again, this is time number forty, my question is still—”
So is it the undoing, or is it that they have such a clear sense of what the issues are in their lives, or are those two not opposites?
Ann: I don’t know. I’m certainly not one of those people who enjoy such a sense of clarity. I think it’s less a matter of having figured something out than coming to realize that you have to come up with new measures of what counts. It is a humbling moment, at this point; one is really not worried about being in the game and driven by it in the same way.
These are my priorities, not necessarily those of the faculty giving the Master Classes. These are masters with their own gifts of pedagogy and creative thought, people immersed in their work. It is this sense of immersion and political sensibility that I invite them to share with us.
Rex: I think that’s good; I think if you said, “the most successful people in the academy will now, for a week, tell you the truth. Come, be part of our show, bask in our reflected glory” there’d be some people who are really into that. But the question is always: What kind of people is that project attracting? And is that really the kind of intervention in their biographies you want to have?
Ann: We’re going to be very attentive to what those who participate this first year find most rewarding. We’ll want feedback from participants on what the experience is like and from those leading the seminars as well. Each year we will try to incorporate their thoughts into the new space we’re in the process of creating.
Rex: There are cultural issues as well. Many people coming from the global south are coming from a different place. I mean, living in Polynesia, where we have many students from the Pacific, many of the cultures here are hierarchical and people want a kind of apprentice master-student relationship, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. So they’re going to show up and, be like: “I thought Simon Critchley was going to give me his cliff notes for Heidegger, but instead we spent all this time talking about concepts”. So there’s a lot of challenges to work through. But I guess that’s a sign that it’s worth doing.
Ann: I think you’re right. I think that’s true about any project in which someone is known for what they do, people are sitting ready with their pencils poised.
Rex: Can I shift gears a little and talk about the backend of this? So the New School, you have an endowment, that’s good, and the school has been supportive, but…how can I ask this—this is not intended to be an earner for the New School?
Ann: No. The goal is to be self-sustaining. When I presented the idea of the institute to The New School for Social Research’s Board of Trustees, I was thrilled by their enthusiasm. It’s a new intellectual venture–not nostalgia for what the New School was, but an affirmation of its contemporary commitment to address worldly problems, to sponsor face to face pedagogy, and to accommodate not only the well-heeled. The New School has long been committed to developing alternative forms in which we share and produce knowledge, create and critique it and develop practices that keep us grounded and attentive.
Rex: The reason I ask this is because you know, increasingly at many places, including my place, people are trying to be more entrepreneurial and find ways to raise money because they’re not getting money from the sources that they used to.
Some people are going to look at this and say, hey, we’ll have people come out for a week, we’ll charge them $1,500 a pop and that’s how we’ll pay for faculty travel for next semester. I think it’s interesting to hear the choices that you’ve made, because I suspect the people who say “let’s turn this into a cash cow,” will find it’s not working for them in the same way that I trust it will work for you And one of the reasons it’s not going to work is because they’re not doing it because it’s the right thing and because they’re driven to do it, they’re doing it to make money, and that’s not going work.
So, to totally co-opt this interview, that’s one of the main points and I always try to share in any forum even when I’m interviewing other people. Institutions that are successful like the New School are successful partially because they have donors who can start these programs and endowments to a certain extent, but also because they’re following their hearts. And a lot of places when they try to emulate, they’re not following their own vision.
Ann: That’s so right, Alex. I wouldn’t have proposed this if I thought they wanted a cash cow. It emerged from something that I’ve long cared about–the politics of knowledge. How we use knowledge, how we produce it, who we share it with, what we imagine knowledge to do, what work it does in the world.
Rex: I think you are one of these people who have figured out what their central question is!
Ann: No, no. I haven’t at all! I always feel so twisted and hesitant in the face of what I don’t know. I’m not being coy. How important is what we’re doing now? How can one develop priorities? You know, not everybody is Judith Butler, who can enthrall a reverberating crowd at Occupy. What are the sundry ways that we can draw on what we can offer without pretending to be something that we’re not? Without disowning the fact that we live in this really privileged world, an intellectual world in which we get to learn every single day—how do we do that in a way that has some integrity to it? And can we face ourselves at the end of the day?