"Walldog" on Broadway at 23rd street, NYC. © Virag Molnar
Arts & DesignEssays

Writing on the Wall: Letters from New York to Berlin

Street art, urban art, urban interventionism

One day I decide to walk down from Penn Station, where I get off the train, to my office at Union Square, determined to soak in all the text that I can see on the streets. The distance I need to cover is about twenty blocks, and I quickly realize that I will not be able to keep up the standard New York walking pace if I am serious about doing this; there is just way too much text to take notice of. First, I have to cut through Koreatown on 32nd street, a particularly dense section of the city that is bewildering when it comes to the pervasiveness of written signs. I start to heavily filter out the onslaught of textual information, as the majority of the signs are printed in a Korean calligraphy that I find aesthetically intriguing but impossible to understand. I focus instead on the many bilingual signs that give away the mishmash of activities taking place in the area…

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BIG DATA © DARPA | Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
EssaysMedia & Publics

The Big Issue with Big Data: Who Do You Think I Am?

Big data is all the buzz in business and government. The assumption is that meta-data — data about who communicates with whom, when, where, in which sequences and networks — can generate ever more comprehensive and granular accounts of everyday life and social practices across global space and in real time. For business, the bit trails that we all leave behind become ways of predicting where — to which goods and services — those trails will take us in the future. For government, those same trails bear witness to what friends as well as enemies already did, or may do in the future, as indicated by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of National Security Agency activities.

The various legal, ethical, and political concerns about the protection of the individual’s privacy from spam and surveillance are evident. However, the emerging digital infrastructure raises a more general and fundamental issue about the rights of citizens in their roles as communicators in the contemporary media environment. …

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Three interlocking rings © Nbvf | Dreamstime.com
EssaysTheory & Practice

The Social Condition: The Third Intellectual Project

Sociologists face three distinct intellectual projects in their work. They are well aware of two of them, but the third remains in the shadows. The two standard projects are the study of the social construction, and the study of social effects. The third, the study of the predictable existential dilemmas we face, is the one Jeff Goldfarb and I are working to develop in our work, what we call “the social condition.”

As every undergraduate student learns after her first introduction to sociology, our world is socially constructed. People constantly give meaning, together, to a world that may not have an intrinsic meaning to it. In its deepest form, the one that Berger and Luckmann saw so well over 45 years ago, social construction is an existential drama. It is not only that, as undergraduates quickly learn to recite, identities are constructed by a social world (gender and race being the favorite examples). This is, of course, true and important. It is, rather, that our entire existence, as so far as it is meaningful, must be socially constructed and re-constructed. Like a shoddy plane over the void of meaninglessness, we construct a meaningful world—a world in which human existence, institutions and identities make sense…

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Book cover of Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers by Anabel Hernandez. © Verso
Arts & DesignEssays

Interview with an Expert on Violence

Elzbieta Matynia introduces a very special poem

In late September the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, which I direct, arranged a talk by Anabel Hernández, a Mexican journalist and courageous writer whose book, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers,has just been published in English by Verso. I had heard about Hernandez and her work, but I thought a better person to moderate the evening would be our doctoral student in sociology, Gema Santamaría, who works on problems of violence in Mexico. I had gotten to know Gema quite well during our Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, where I taught a seminar called Romancing Violence. I knew that though born in Nicaragua she wanted to work on Mexico, where she grew up. I could see that she is a brilliant student and I learned that she is also an accomplished poet. So I thought that she and Anabel – who had not been at the New School before — would make a good team. We had a full house that night, and though some people had to stand on the sides of the Hirshon Suite, nobody moved. Anabel gave an engaging though disturbing presentation, analyzing the tight linkages between Mexico’s political class and its drug economy…

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Max Weber in 1894 © Unknown | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysTheory & Practice

The Social Condition

I am embarking upon a new project, the investigation of the social condition, identifying dilemmas that are inevitably built into the social fabric, and exploring the ways people work to address them. Some examples:

It is obviously important for a democratic society to provide equal opportunity for all young people. The less privileged should have the advantages of a good education. This is certainly a most fundamental requirement for equal opportunity. On the other hand, it is just as certain that a good society, democratic and otherwise, should encourage and enable parents to provide the best, to present the world as they know and appreciate it, to their children: to read to them, to introduce them to the fine arts and sciences, and to take them on interesting trips, both near and far. But not all parents can do this as effectively, some have the means, some don’t. Democratic education and caring for one’s children are in tension. The social bonds of citizenship and the social bonds of family are necessarily in tension. This tension, in many variations, defines a significant dimension of the social condition…

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"We will wash your brains" © Olesia Sarycheva | Dreamstime.com
DemocracyEssaysIn DepthMedia & Publics

Limiting Democracy: The American Media’s World View, and Ours

This article was originally published in Social Research, Vol. 7: No. 3: Fall 2010.

One of the difficulties in discussing the notion that it is the media that limits our idea of politics is that we all have an inherent resistance to believing that our own understanding of the political world is artificially limited. Most of us are willing to talk about political propaganda and the way in which political opinions are manipulated as long as that means somebody else’s opinions. We all prefer to think it happens to other people, not to ourselves.

This is true, first, because it is simply unpleasant to think about oneself being propagandized or being in some way manipulated. But the more substantive reason for this resistance is that the way in which we assess the set of information we receive about the world is very self-reinforcing. There is a certain set of information, a set of sources to which we are subjected or which we seek out, that provides us with information about the world and shapes our political world view…

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Sculpture of Comedy and Tragedy at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, by sculptor and architect Paul Cret. (cropped) ©  Smallbones | Wikimedia Commons
Arts & DesignEssays

What is Shakespearean Tragedy?

An excerpt from ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy

The question ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ can understandably prompt one to start listing distinctive features of various plays by Shakespeare — as if a successful enumeration of its characteristics would amount to an understanding of the genre….

…However, rather than approach Shakespearean tragedy as the sum-total of certain features or “facts,” or as a generic object of study, I propose that we see Shakespearean tragedy as a discrete form of art — as the birth of a distinctive art form, the same way we think of ‘painting on canvas’ or ‘symphonic music’ as art forms that arrived on the world stage at a particular place and time.[i] Whereas a ‘genre’ purports to be a collection of objects that share common, taxonomically graspable features or techniques, there is no exhaustive list of features that ‘add up’ to Shakespearean tragedy – since, for a start, it is up to us to discern, decide, or debate, what will even count as features of this art form. Moreover, if Shakespearean tragedies all shared certain inherent, generic characteristics, then it would be difficult to distinguish between Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello – 

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Tadeusz Mazowiecki in 1989 (cropped). © Artur Klose | http://de.wikipedia.org
DemocracyEssays

Remembering Tadeusz Mazowiecki

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first democratic prime minister of Poland, elected after decades of Communist rule, died on October 28.

In a widely popular weekly satirical puppet TV show, The Polish Zoo, which aired in Poland at the beginning of the 1990s, Mazowiecki was a turtle: sluggish and wise. (Among other central political figures were Lech Wałęsa, the president of Poland, as the lion, and a key post-Communist figure, Leszek Miller, as the spider.) Easily recognizable for his slow manner of speaking, Mazowiecki quickly became the symbol of peaceful, and rapid, democratic change.

 

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A Black Pete © 12Danny12 | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysRace

Black Faces, Red Skins and White Celebrations

In the country where I grew up, the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ yearly visit is a hugely popular celebration, rich in rituals and designed to make children happy. Three years ago, the celebration came to New York, where I now live. It seemed only logical to expose my half-Dutch children to this cherished tradition.

A large group of Dutch parents and children gathered at New York’s The Netherland Club. While awaiting the arrival of “the holy man,” they all happily sang the traditional songs about “the bishop,” who, as it is told, hails from Spain and makes his yearly trek to the Netherlands on his white horse with his servants. The lyrics: “His servant stood laughing and told us,” “Those who are sweet will get candy, the others will get spanked.” And: “Even though I am black as soot, I mean pretty well.”

All had been peaceful at the Netherland Club until a number of black-faced minstrels came out of nowhere, ramming on doors and throwing candy into the room. My three year old ran out of the room in utter fear, settling in a hiding spot, somewhere under a table in a closet with the doors closed. The show of well-intentioned fun by a bunch of guys in funny suits, donning afro-wigs and red painted lips was completely lost on my son, forcing me to reconsider the meaning and symbols of the tradition.

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Book cover of The Third Person © Wiley, John & Sons Inc | Barnesandnoble.com
DemocracyEssaysIn Depth

Human Rights Without Persons? A Review Essay of Third Person

We are used to thinking that human rights are rights that belong to every person because of their intrinsic value. But is this the only, or at least, the best way of thinking about human rights? In his recent book, Third Person, Roberto Esposito has radically challenged this view. According to him, the triumph of the category of “the person” that, since the end of World War II has accompanied the discourse on human rights, is not the source of its success, but rather of its failure. This is because, in his view, the notion of the person, which has, since the days of Roman law and even more pointedly in its Christian elaboration, indicated the transcendent value of a human being, is incapable of bridging the gap between humanity and the logic of citizenship, precisely because it is what creates such a gap.

By opposing the person, as something artificial and endowed with moral and political significance, to mere humanity in its naturalness, Roman law gave rise to a powerful “dispositif” (p. 9), that is, to a notion that has, throughout its various Western morphologies, always been able to produce very real and tangible effects.

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