How can we wish each other a Happy New Year when the year ending, on the global stage, has been such an unhappy one? Of course, as individuals in our private lives, many of us may have had a good year and may look forward to a better one. But on the public stage, the year has been an extremely troubling, with few hopeful prospects. These are dark times.
One could just naively and optimistically hope that next year will see improvements. We can wish that somehow the Syrian civil war will end; that the Turks and the Kurds, along with the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, will learn to live in peace and harmony with each other; that the horrors of terrorism and anti-terrorism, populism and xenophobic nationalism, will somehow just abate.
At Public Seminar, instead, our wishes for a “Happy New Year” come as we recall our ongoing project of thinking and working together, and we promise to continue, broaden our perspectives, improve our work, and expand our circles and forms of engagement. We hope that our small efforts will help improve things, at least for the circle of our contributors and visitors. Our contribution to a brighter 2016 will be to intensify our efforts to provide a thoughtful forum for addressing the issues of the world and our lives.
Hannah Arendt observed:
Even in the darkest of times, we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances.
She, the patron saint of The New School for Social Research and Public Seminar (I am joking; it is New Year’s Eve), wrote these words in her preface to her most beautiful of books, Men in Dark Times. It is comprised of a series of portraits of illuminating thinkers, who moved against the dark currents of their times (by the way, among them, two women). The book was clearly composed as a compilation of occasional pieces she wrote over the years about people whom she deeply admired. The book is, in a sense, a collection from her obituary column. Yet, it is indeed more than the sum of its parts: it suggests Arendt’s optimism. Even facing modern barbarism (her description of totalitarianism), when the state of the human condition is dismal, there are those who can think through problems, illuminate their dimensions, and provide some grounds for hope against hopelessness. This year at Public Seminar, we, the staff and contributors, have been working in this spirit.
2015 was a very bad year, and we have worked against the current, committed to the promise set forth on our “about” page. “Confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day, using the broad resources of social research, we seek to provoke critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.” While Arendt in her book turned to individuals she admired, we atPublic Seminar turned to each other, including our readers, listeners, and viewers, building a virtual intellectual community: writing, recording, editing, and publishing. We have dedicated ourselves to extend the New School’s legendary “General Seminar,” founded by the original Exile scholars. We are constituting “a public seminar for the 21st century.”
We have responded to disruptive events, opening the year with a series of posts on the attack of Charlie Hebdo, reflecting on its causes, its meaning, and the ways we should respond—as well as the limits of those ways. We didn’t and don’t have an official line. Although our approaches and assessments differed, taken together we raised the significant questions and debated answers. At a time when dogmatism and easy answers are fundamental causes of the darkness (see my “gray is beautiful” posts), we dedicated ourselves to a project of illumination, or at least we tried, going beyond clichés, thinking together. These goals were at the front of our minds as we published a series of exceptional pieces addressing the second major attack in France this year.
We closed the year strongly, with a set of posts that compactly reveal the range of our work. One post, by Melissa May Borja, looks closely at the practical responses to the refugee crisis in the U.S. Another,by Ross Poole, at the way the 9/11 memorial remembers for good and ill. A piece each by Daniel Boscov Ellen and Johanna Oksala present alternative appraisals of the Paris Climate deal, both critically considering the ways capitalism challenges the ecology, with very different prognoses. And then Janos Kis, one of the great Hungarian dissidents during the regime of previously existing socialism, published a frank criticism of the new anti-liberal nationalist order in his homeland, while Lila Corwin Berman contributed a piece critically appraising the Facebook philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, ironically a pretty big hit on our Facebook page.
Throughout the year, we published pieces on a wide variety of themes in a variety of different ways.
Ken Wark, our letter writer in chief, shared with our readers his distinctive critical judgments in his distinctive critical voice. Commenting on “the slow motion emergency in which we find ourselves,” he confesses that “nobody really knows how to respond,” but he has tried his hardest to explore the crises of our times as he understands them. He has presented probing reviews of the latest works of critical theory as he thinks along with hidden classics to illuminate the nature of the emergency and ways to go beyond it. Many of his contributions come from the notes for his classes, nicely demonstrated in his O.O.P.S. contribution on Critical Media Theory, the most read contribution on Public Seminar this year.
Along with Wark, regular letter writers — self published, more spontaneous, less formal blog posts — include Michael Quirk, Eli Zaretsky, and me . Eli and I had an extended debate on “the left” and “the gray,” which demonstrated the broad range of opinion in our seminar. Others also joined in, and we hope more will.
We experimented with O.O.P.S. (Open Online Public Seminar) as an alternative to Massive Open Online Courses (M.O.O.C.s). Here the specified courses on capitalism, feminism, and the social condition were extended, with contributions from professors and students addressing the general public. And here, with the prospects of addressing a broader public, we have opened a platform for students to offer critical assessments of problems in their classes, and for students and professors to reflect on the ideals and practices of distinctive pedagogic projects — for example, the liberal arts, the social sciences, and design — and their relations. This is one of the features of our seminar that we hope to develop more systematically in the coming year.
Also developing is our A/V department. We opened the department recently, and already the possibilities are nicely revealed in videos and live streams of academic events, PS roundtables, critical discussions, interviews, and recordings of other happenings. Bi-weekly podcasts, linking history and current events, are coming soon. In this department we seek to document and share thought in action. An interview of Andreas Kalyvas, a dialogue between Richard Bernstein and Richard Rottenberg, a recorded William Philips lecture by Sonia Combe, and a workshop on the crisis in Turkey show what we promise to do.
And then there is the PS Reviews section. We are exploring here, “providing insightful commentary on all creative output under the sun”: reviews of books and articles, exhibitions and performances, video and audio recordings, the highly refined and the spontaneous and popular. We started already with a feature of two authors reviewing each others books (see here and here), and we published Jeremy Varon’s (an anti-Gitmo activist) review of Laurie Anderson’s “Guantanamo Saga” and Chiara Bottici’s review of the opera, The Bonfire of the Vanities, with music by Stefania de Kenessey and libretto by Michael Bergmann. De Kenessey has promised us to publish some of her music here in dialogue with the written review.
We’ve been busy and promise to get busier. But ours is not just busywork. We work in pursuit of the sources of light about which Arendt wrote, though not like her in heroic individuals in dark times, but rather in the collective enterprise of a new kind of academic/intellectual publishing.
And along the way we have fun, as the photos accompanying this essay document, taken from our Public Seminar Party in November, during which we introduced the redesign of our website. It improves the look of our work, we hope, but also, more importantly, enables us to develop new ways of constituting our seminar.
So, looking forward, on behalf of the editors and staff of Public Seminar, we say sincerely: Happy New Year!