December 2016 Newsletter
HOT OFF THE PRESS: SOCIAL RESEARCH ISSUE ON “FAILURE”
Failure, it seems, is all around us—something to which nothing and no one is immune. The newly published fall issue of Social Research, "Failure," guest-edited by Arjun Appadurai, addresses failure from myriad angles and disciplines: Albena Azmanova examines second-wave feminism’s failure to achieve liberation; Shiv Visvanathan describes three competing ideas of failure in Indian science; Cameron Tonkinwise argues for failure in design as an adaptive reaction to reality as an ongoing experiment. The papers are united in their acknowledgement, implicit or explicit, of failure as a dynamic concept, constructed by human judgment and thus subject to change.
In his essay “Failures of Mind and Meaning,” philosopher Akeel Bilgrami describes failure as specifically predicated on the existence of a norm by which a given thing can be said to have succeeded or failed. Whether the norm is dictated by the natural sciences or individual human motivations and psychology, there is always a unique intention, he posits: the intention of meaning. “When I intend to mean something by the sounds I utter,” Bilgrami writes, “there cannot be any failure to fulfill the intention…. Failures of meaning, in one perfectly good sense of ‘meaning,’ are impossible.”
Yet, as guest editor Arjun Appadurai writes in his introduction, failure “is a loose concept, covering everything from small mistakes in ordinary life to major catastrophes.... Failure is a bigger mystery than it at first appears to be.” At this moment when the looming specter of Trump’s presidency has many questioning whether American democracy itself has failed, it is perhaps more important than ever to probe this mystery.
“POST-TRUTH,” KNOWLEDGE, AND SOCIAL RESEARCH
What happens when facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief? This phenomenon is known as “post-truth,” a term that was named word of 2016 by the Oxford English Dictionary. When false news is seen as credible and the metrics of prediction have proven inaccurate, even unreliable, it is essential to consider the role of truth and research in political and social issues.
Economist and sociologist Emil Lederer, writing in 1937, published an essay in Social Research on “The Search for Truth.” The uncertainty of the era hangs over his words as he writes of the “responsibility that rests upon those of us who believe that the search for truth is our vocation.” Nearly eight decades later, his message has lost none of its power.
Truth itself has always been the subject of political and philosophical inquiry. “Transparently dishonest” arguments have been seen before, as Eric Alterman argues in his 2004 Social Research article “Fear: What Is It Good For?” and in our 2012 issue on "Politics and Comedy," Angelique Haugerud picked up on “truthiness”—Stephen Colbert’s “popularized term for ersatz truths.” Is “post-truth” something new and different? Does the relevance and currency of this word signal a monumental shift, a growing trend, an outlier year, or a recycling of what history has seen before?
Kenneth Prewitt, at our conference on “The Future of Scholarly Knowledge,” noted the “high stakes” of asking such questions. Academia may have lost its monopoly on knowledge, but knowledge is not necessarily more egalitarian as a result. In the current context, think tanks and lobbying groups compete with universities for ownership of knowledge. Universities and funders struggle over questions of autonomy and performance metrics. Scholarly research fails to reach the public, and research itself is increasingly commercialized.
Given all of this, attempts to seek truth face a very uncertain future, especially when the methods by which we determine what is fact are rejected as the product of the “liberal elite,” or when epistemological pluralism—the different ways of knowing things—has taken hold to such a degree that some reject the certainty with which anyone can “know” anything sufficiently well enough to claim it to be true. Under these conditions, the Holocaust may be denied or climate change may be considered unreal.
Fighting for a world that respects knowledge and research is of as much importance today as ever. To return to Emil Lederer’s charge, we ought to “follow the truth wherever it leads.”
THEIR AMERICA: THE US IN THE EYES OF THE REST OF THE WORLD
Perceptions of the United States from around the world have surely changed following the recent election of Donald Trump. The Social Research issue “Their America: The US in the Eyes of the Rest of the World,” published a little more than a decade ago provides a necessary history for understanding contemporary perceptions. Authors from eleven countries and regions around the globe documented their local perspectives on the US, views that were not only important then but that helped to shape the reality of today.
Michael Nauman, in “Europe and the Ties that Bind,” examined the socially and economically integrated relationship between the US and the EU. Yuen-Ying Chan, in “Reimagining America,” took a close look at changes over time in Chinese perceptions of the United State. And Fyodor Lukyanov, in “America as the Mirror of Russian Phobias,” explored the contradictions in Russia’s attitude toward the US.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, in “The United States and Islam: Toward Perpetual War?” examined the US association of terrorism with Islam, looking deeply at the roots of terrorism and of Islam itself, of modernization in Muslim states, and of US imperialism. His analysis, which remains timely and even essential, considers the dangers of reductionist blanket policies in the US and of religious movements in general. Against “the twin ogres of American imperialism and Islamic radicalism,” Hoodbhoy offers some hope in civil society and protest. “Through deeply troubled waters, we must steer by a distant star toward a careful, reasoned, democratic, humanistic, compassionate, and secular future.”
Enormous change is ahead for the United States, and much of it will be in regard to foreign policy. Give this issue another read in preparation for the trying times ahead.
CENTER FOR PUBLIC SCHOLARSHIP: RECENT EVENTS
In November, the Center for Public Scholarship and Endangered Scholars Worldwide at The New School invited scholars from China, Syria, Iran, and Turkey to talk about the ongoing threats to free expression and scholarly inquiry in their countries. Our four panelists reflected on the ongoing struggles to pursue teaching responsibilities and research endeavors in the context of devastating consequences of armed conflict, prosecution, and imprisonment. During the reception following the panel discussion, many participants took the opportunity to write postcards of support and encouragement to currently imprisoned and threatened academics. Read more.
In December, the Center for Public Scholarship’s Public Voices series continued with an evening discussion at The New School among four public intellectuals who reflected on Obama’s presidency and its legacy. Moderated by Frederick Harris (Columbia University), panelists Michael E. Dyson (Georgetown University), Julianne Malveaux (founder of Economic Education) and Deva Woodly (The New School) addressed the hopes for racial justice that accompanied Obama’s inauguration but were dashed by the reality of increased police violence and racism in the United States. The panelists reflected on the missed opportunities of Obama’s presidency and the challenges of the recent election, including the role of misogyny and white supremacy and the “politics of despair.” Read more.