Experimentation in Tandem with Exile?
This is the prepared text of a presentation to the General Seminar commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile.
I’d like to take up Robin’s invitation to think about what exile signifies and to ask, as she does, what are the consequences of having institutionalized the very singular, exceptional, and dislocating event of Exile. Here, in slight departure from Robin’s comments, I’m putting the emphasis on consequences as opposed to meaning. If exile is our referent, to what extent does this imply a nostalgic disposition, which further implies that the future is imagined in terms of loss and the horizon is constituted by a grammar of preservation. People in exile are homesick.
Of course, exile is one referent amongst others in the constitutive grammar of the New School. As we know, some things get to be counted as “historical events” — as significant. The founding and history of the NSSR can be narrated and memorialized according to an array of acts and endeavors. Some of these are today institutionalized as “events” while others have been rendered insignificant or invisible.
I’d like to suggest, since we convened today to talk about the future of the NSSR, that we consider the criteria that inform what counts as a founding event in the history we tell ourselves about this institution. This means taking into account the premises that dictate what is and is not worth narrating.
This problem is obviously too big and too abstract for today’s meeting, but we can ask the more limited and extremely simple question: Why do we narrate or understand the founding and history of the NSSR according to particular founding events as opposed to other events?
For example, 1933 is posited as, and assumed to be, an exceptional event and founding moment for the NSSR versus 1919, when a particular group of scholars took a very specific and somewhat radical stance with respect to the nature of higher education and research.
Without claiming that we should grant the same status to the experiences of 1933 and 1919 — clearly an absurd and unwelcome proposition — we might stand something to gain by excavating the many strands that make up this institution — the strands that are not necessarily defined by exile, critique and crisis; and the strands that connect us to the wider university. So I ask a question (which hopefully Jim will answer): Is it worth excavating this silenced project of these early 20th-century scholars?
If we do that, we encounter some familiar terrain: a research institute that would be free of secular and religious control — that would have no endowment. People would pay at the turnstile; and hence the age-old problem of how to finance doctoral research. Could non-vocational adult education subsidize fundamental research?
It is worth noting that in the early 1920s, when donors withdrew pledged funding and after the research division was dismantled (in 1922), Alvin Johnson’s imagined future was an institution built upon adult education, artistic practice, and a revitalized center for social research — as an articulated whole.
Indeed, during the 1920s and 1930s, The New School for Social Research flourished as a center of experimentation in the visual and performing arts, some of which was devoted to opposing fascism. This flourishing is worth narrating in tandem with exile. The New School was — and hopefully can continue to be — an experimental institution, a place of experiment that flourished.
In that sense, we can imagine the future of the NSSR as exceptional in the landscape of higher education and research, not only because it is the place of exile, but also because of its profound eclecticism, confounding institutional structure, and experimental disposition.
It’s worth underscoring that in the spring of 1933, The New School was primarily an experimental institution devoted to adult education and artistic practice with a full-time faculty of only four or five members. In April of that year, as the Nazis expelled Jewish and socialist scholars from their university positions, Johnson took the opportunity to revitalize the center for social research. In some ways, and despite individual commitments to trans-disciplinary work, the departments of social research that we now inhabit at the NSSR have ossified into disciplinary silos, like small spaces of exile in the sea of the larger landscape.
How does this institutional configuration affect the principles of eclecticism, experimentation, and an unorthodox institutional configuration?
Somewhat unfortunately, these latter qualities are now often lamented, especially during the ritual of executive faculty meetings. The NSSR most often understands itself to be in a state of failure or, worse, “in crisis” (financially, administratively). At the NSSR, Crisis has become normalized as a state of affairs. I’d like to challenge this self-representation: that is, to question whether exceptional status is best thought as a negative occupation of the world: as exile, as a condition of crisis. And I’d therefore like to raise the question: Are there intellectual collaborations, networks, and experiments that belie this crisis self-understanding of the NSSR? What are the sites of experimentation and creation that are currently producing exceptional and positive knowledge that don’t start from the vantage point of a negative occupation of our condition, that don’t begin with the question “What went wrong?” (As we necessarily do in our practice of critique).
Here — but only a very cursory manner — we can return to the question: what counts as an event? What is granted the status of an event, or granted the qualification as “history” itself?
Crisis, as an historical concept, refers to the retrospective effects of events and to their constitutive presuppositions. Crisis is a criterion for what counts as “history’ and, through its cognate, critique, it is a means of signifying change. This topic of the cognates, critique and crisis, is of course much too complex and large a topic for now, but I want to end on that point so as to invite the graduate students to speak to their sense of the future of the NSSR, which is maybe not a vision that takes critique-crisis as its point of departure.