Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mugging

I attended a roundtable discussion of the question "What is the Meaning of the University in Exile for the NSSR of the Future" today - and even got a souvenir mug! NSSR, "New School for Social Research," is a floaty signifier here: today it refers to what what was until recently known as the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science, which itself began as the University-in-Exile. The University-in-Exile, of course, was a 1933 offshoot and project of the original New School for Social Research, founded in 1919, which has been wandering increasingly wraithlike through our halls since losing its name - you know the story!

The current dean of NSSR framed the discussion with a more pointed question: is the University-in-Exile "useful as an organizing principle for the future" of the division. The answer I gathered from the ensuing discussion was: no. Faculty members talked of the paradox of "institutionalizing exile," of the way focus on exile generates nostalgia, sees time as loss and approaches the future in a modality of preservation. Graduate students lamented the institution's failures to live up to its ideals, one noting that The New School currently provides refuge to corporatizing trends in higher education, while sending into exile students crippled by debt and young faculty unable to find tenure-track positions. Difficult challenges!

J, my coconspirator in things New School history, spoke in our class last semester about the "trope of exile," tracing out several generations of protest movements within the school which helped themselves to the idea of exile even within an institution historically linked to refuge. Productive it may be in articulating alienation, but is it productive otherwise? I was struck by how a particular way of telling the 1933 story makes the division which started as the University-in-Exile permanently unassimilable to the school of which it's part. There are other ways of telling the story. What if we learned to see the University-in-Exile as a natural (if still epic) extension of the engagement with the international community of social scientists which produced the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences out of the office of The New School? If our greatest moment wasn't an exception but something more like business as usual in an exceptional place? Too easy? But probably also not "sticky" enough.

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