Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Figuring out

Today's New School Century was the first of two sessions examining the city and its challenges, and, more generally, the fate of The New School in the 1950s and early 1960s. Our frame was provided by Anatole Broyard, whose Kafka was the rage: A Greenwich Village memoir contains a somewhat devastating description of The New School in the immediate postwar period. Broyard writes of a place where embittered German emigrés strove with nearly incomprehensible accents and jagged teutonisms to make stylish American students feel like outsiders in their own land; every class declared something wrong - the crisis in the family, in politics, in education, you name it. In Broyard's memoir The New School represents the Ernst des Lebens, which postwar Greenwich Village dutifully pursued, along with sex, intellectual conversation and books.

As you know Max Wertheimer (whom you've also met) makes a guest appearance in a class on Gestalt Psychology - something which almost certainly didn't happen as Broyard describes it: Wertheimer died three years before. Did Broyard hear about it, did the class watch a film? Maybe it wasn't Wertheimer at all. It doesn't seem impossible that some wires got crossed over 45 years. But Wertheimer's appearing in a class on Gestalt Psychology makes a kind of Gestalt sense, just as imagining Hannah Arendt in the hallways decades before her arrival in 1967 does. What becomes memory, individual and collective, is only contingently related to Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen. It finds its way into memory because it fits, historical accuracy be damned.

Our larger theme for the day was alienation, a good postwar topic, and here too Broyard is very helpful. Kafka was the rage is a portrait of "alienated" people. And, we learned after his death, Broyard knew alienation, as a light-skinned creole who successfully "passed for white." (I discussed some mutely signifying passages a few years ago.) We'd also assigned an essay by University in Exile sociologist Julie Mayer, "The Stranger and the City," which built on work of another University in Exile sociologist, Alfred Schütz, along with Hannah Arendt's anti-pragmatist screed, "The crisis in education."

My co-teacher J laid out these sociological understandings of strangers and of what it is in cities that makes them conglomerations of strangers - not, as is often said, of villages. Strangers and city people never feel the comfort of knowing that those around them share their basic assumptions, but respond to this not only by seeking to be part of groups but by cultivating anonymity, too. As Georg Simmel argued in foundational essays in this field, cities invite and force new kinds of individuation. All these thinkers were as suspicious of those people who are "rooted" in rural towns as could be. The future is and should be urban and cosmopolitan, a humanism beyond alienation - if we can find ways of avoiding the pitfalls of "mass society."

My main topic of the day was political psychophilosopher Erich Fromm, who offered courses at The New School (Adult Division, not Graduate Faculty) from 1941 to 1959, but whose contributions here have been forgotten. When a grand old lady who teaches at the Institute of Retired Professionals saw me pre-screening a 1966 interview with Fromm earlier this afternoon she reminisced about the ubiquity of Fromm's The Art of Loving, whose formula - care, responsibility, respect, knowledge - was still at her fingertips... but she didn't know he'd taught here. In fact, Fromm has all but vanished not only from New School history (except a fascinatingly ambivalent description in Broyard) but from history more generally. How can this be?

I'd found an amusing and illuminating sociology of knowledge article on just this topic, and used it as a way to raise questions about the way the history of ideas really works - it's not (or not just) the power of ideas, or of personalities, but depends on institutions, schools, advocates, etc. McLaughlin (Sociological Forum 13/2 [1998]: 215-46) argues that in the years after 1965, Fromm faded from view for some of the same reasons he'd originally come to prominence. Fromm was an interdisciplinary thinker who distanced himself from classical Marxist and Freudian schools and never nested in a major university where he could found a school and train graduate student disciples. Nobody had an investment in maintaining his reputation (and some like Herbert Marcuse scored points by attacking him). While his main works continue to be in and out of print, his academic sun long ago set. (It didn't help that Fromm wrote in accessible non-technical language, either.)

In a way Fromm's fortunes parallel those of the Adult Division, which slips between the stools of academic historiography. Fromm's wikipedia bio (unless I feel inspired to change it) doesn't even mention his time at The New School, citing only the (brief) gigs as a faculty member in other universities. His books, from the incisive 1941 Escape from freedom (called Fear of freedom in the British edition I was floored by at Oxford) through The Art of Loving, which sold an incredible 25 million copies, influenced many outside the academy. That's what Adult Education aims to do, too. It's not the striving to be another brick in the wall of disciplinary knowledge Max Weber praises in Wissenschaft als Beruf. While Weber's Wissenschaftler aims to be forgotten (taken for granted then superseded), the adult educator actually is - at least as long as our history focuses only on academic production.

These melancholy reflections were only passing thoughts - my main object was to lay out the argument of Escape from freedom and trace its development into the critique of conformist consumerist society Fromm develops in the film interview and an article we read from the Saturday Evening Post - but their pathos managed to resonate with our other discussions about alienation, strangers seeking anonymity and recognition, etc.

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